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Overcoming stage fright
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Overexposed? Or how to overcome stage fright. With help from Joe Kowan, Janis Joplin and two very naked Frenchmen!

Date posted: Tuesday 8th April 2014

Every town, no matter how picturesque and affluent, has a soft underbelly. I can confirm that Ipswich has more than its fair share, as most of them seemed to be on display all around me while I sat in a coffee bar near the BBC Radio Suffolk studio. Ipswich was the first leg of my national tour during the first Selective Mutism Awareness Week, as I visited schools and appeared on live radio across the UK. I’d appeared on the radio once before, but that was talking about children’s sleep difficulties, accompanied by someone who knew far more about the subject than I did, so I didn’t feel nervous at all.

So there I was in the coffee bar, going over my notes, feeling my hands shake and wondering why in the hell I had volunteered to go live on radio. A middle aged man with the biggest and softest underbelly in East Anglia, hanging out from underneath not enough T-shirt, sidled over and plonked himself onto the seat next to mine. The conversation went something like this. Let’s call my new-found friend Big Tom.

BT: Yorright mate?
Me: Fine thanks
BT: Goon on the radio, ur ya?
Me: Yes. How did you know?
BT: Oi cun smell the fear, me.
Me: Oops! Sorry about that.
BT: Und oim noticin’ the shaky voice, und the swettin’ palms, und the racin’ ‘eart und the shallow breathin’.
Me: I didn’t know it was that obvious.
BT: Want some advoice?
Me: I think I’m going to get it anyway.
BT: Imagine the presenter naykid. That works a treat for me whenever oim uh bit nervis about torkin’ with the ladies. That presenter’s a bit of a dish, so have fun picturin’ ‘er all nood like. (Imagine here Big Tom licking his lips and laughing in a pervy way , like a cross between Walter Gabriel from The Archers and Mutley from The Wacky Races.)
Me: I’m just off to the loo (again). Thanks for the advice.

When I came out of the toilet, Big Tom had mysteriously disappeared. I felt like I was beginning to lose my grip on reality. I needn’t have worried. The interview went well, thanks to some good advice from the producer just before I went into the studio: “Just treat the whole thing like you are having a chat. The presenter is very experienced, and watch her hand signals for when she wants you to stop talking, so she can ask another question.”

I had done well. I had planned my talk, and though I was nervous, I wasn’t scared. I had the jitters an hour or so before I went on, but this led me to be very focused and to fine tune my planning, so that when I was in the studio, talking live, I was on top of my brief. Big Tom was right: the presenter was, well… very presentable, and in case you are wondering, it didn’t cross my mind to imagine her ‘nood’. I was too busy concentrating on what I was saying to think about anything else.

A highly experienced public speaker told me recently that it can be very helpful to have a feeling of apprehension before you give a talk to a large audience. You get all the symptoms that Big Tom so eloquently described, as adrenaline starts pumping into your bloodstream. But the person who succeeds in front of the audience is the one who recognises the symptoms for what they are, and gets them under control just before they go onstage.

This is not the same as stage fright, where performers completely succumb to the rush of adrenaline and head into a panic out of which they can’t escape. The singer Laura Nyro (in whose army of fans I am but a mere foot soldier) was apparently so upset by what she thought was her awful performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that she completely lost her nerve and after that only rarely gave performances. Carly Simon has experienced chronic stage fright throughout her career, despite being recognised as a hugely talented performer and singer. (I wonder if her highly ‘kooky’ approach to performing-making herself look ridiculous- is a way of diffusing her anxiety about how others will perceive her performance.) Barbra Streisand also suffers from stage fright, despite the fact that she is worshipped by millions.

Some actors live in fear of suddenly succumbing to stage fright, either just before a show or even during it. Sir Ralph Richardson was apparently struck dumb mid-way through a play, leaving him a highly anxious performer for the rest of his illustrious career. Michael Gambon and Benedict Cumberbatch regularly feel like puking up, or actually are sick before going onstage. You may not have heard of Joe Kowan, but his performance on a recent TED talk helped me to understand what it must be like, and gives us clues about how those who are afflicted with stage fright can deal with it.

Joe Kowan: caught in the spotlight, but determined to get the better of stage fright

I often wonder what it must be like to have selective mutism, where children are able to talk confidently at home, but suddenly become unable to talk when a stranger visits, or typically when they are in school. It may not be like stage fright, but can be just as irrational and inexplicable. Some people have suggested that the child experiences a fear similar to performers with stage fright, believing that by talking and making mistakes they will be exposing themselves to ridicule. When adults start to pressurise them into talking, the children can develop a dread of hearing their voice. Whatever the causes may be for this extreme anxiety about speaking in public, we do know that children with selective mutism begin to relax if the pressure to speak in school is taken off them, but they are encouraged to join in group activities and praised for doing so. With repeated success at joining in activities, and in some cases by taking part in a behavioural programme involving parents, friends and school staff, the children can with very small steps begin to use their voice in public.

Which brings me to this rather bizarre clip of Janis Joplin performing in Germany. Janis apparently felt more relaxed and in control of her life when she was in front of audiences. In this show she gets as many people as she can to come out of the audience and dance on stage. I feel hugely sympathetic towards the poor girl who is clearly frightened out of her wits when Janis drags her onto the stage. What must have made it even more excruciating was when the girl tries to leave and Janis pulls her back and starts singing to her. For someone who looks like she was already very shy, this must have been like a nightmare. Let’s hope she and her friends were able to see the funny side of it all and that she didn’t suffer unduly, though it must be highly embarrassing to know that over 3,500,000 have witnessed the spectacle.

Janis Joplin: stage frightening?

All this talk about imagining people ‘nood’ and feeling exposed leads me to this funny clip. The next time I’m feeling nervous in front of an audience I’m going to thank my lucky stars that I’ve got all my clothes on!

Les Beaux Freres: Your worst nightmare?

Take care out there


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10 responses to “Overexposed? Or how to overcome stage fright. With help from Joe Kowan, Janis Joplin and two very naked Frenchmen!”

  1. John Rice says:

    This is really interesting, Michael. I sometimes attend an open mike event and feel, strongly, that I should have a go. I’m the first to admit that my voice is… inadequate, but I’m a reasonable guitarist and the audience is more than supportive, so why the reserve? My son has played piano in all manner of venues and exhibits no nerves whatsoever, but then he’s been doing so since early childhood – perhaps it’s a matter of being acclimatised?

    The analogy of stage fright to selective mutism is, of everything you’ve written, the most enlightening for me. I could only sympathise before but now, I think I truly understand. Place me, alone, in front of 300 children and ask me to sing (badly), and I’m your man. Ask me to sing in front of 20 -30 of my peers and I’ll put my head in the nearest bucket!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi John,
      Good to hear from you. I think all of us adults who are used to giving talks about our work feel most vulnerable when presenting to a group of our peers. I certainly feel that.
      Also we assume that children will automatically trust us teachers so much that they are prepared to do and say whatever we want them to do or say in groups, or in front of the class. But you try telling a group of teachers on a training course to sit in a circle and go round each one to introduce themselves. They (and I) find it nerve-racking! And don’t ask any adults on a course to engage in role play!!
      And that’s how it feels to be a confident child, so what’s it like to be very shy, let alone have selective mutism?!
      I like Joe and his open mike experience. 20 ‘angry folk singers’ must be a terrifying audience!!
      best wishes

  2. Josephine Allen says:

    Hi Michael
    Have you got any source advice on selective speaking (elective mutism)? All nuggets gratefully received! J

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Josephine
      The best work on selective mutism is by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens. Maggie and I also published a book and details are on my website
      You could start by visiting the ‘Selective Mutism’ pages on my website, which include me on telly describing the problem and also me on Radio 4 in an interview with Michael Rosen on ‘Word of Mouth’. Both were fascinating experiences, as I became mute just a few minutes before going on air!
      Best wishes to you!

  3. Mine Conkbayir says:

    Michael, you never fail to inspire and entertain!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Mine, you are very kind. I’m really hoping that more people will do what you do, which is to look closely at the needs of children and young adults who are very quiet and unhappy about being so.
      My next post is about Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton’s hat. Watch this space!

  4. Carol Adams says:

    Very interesting reading and listening to the comments on stage fright. My son can write his own songs, play and sing them but lacks the confidence to perform in public. On the outside he is a very confident, funny and has good rapport with people in general but who knows what is going on inside his head. Regarding selective mutism, I am currently working with a little girl who up until she returned to pre-school in September was quiet but would chat to adults and peers. Since September we have not had a word from her. I have attended one of your workshops so I am aware of not pressuring her to talk. We have built up a close relaxed relationship with her and she appears very happy, laughing and playing around the other children and joining in all the activities – but not a word. We know she chats at home, in the after-school club and to the staff when she picks her brother up from school (all in the same building). Despite her silence we believe she is a very clever little girl and sometimes think she is just playing an elaborate game with us. We’ve become convinced that on her last day with us in July she will shout out, “bye” as she goes through the door for the last time.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Carol. Thank you for replying. Performing your own material is much more nerve-racking than performing someone else’s. It can feel like you are laying yourself bare (literally). If it goes well, then you are encouraged to do it again, and it becomes easier. But if, like me, you are very self-critical, then even one negative comment out of many positive ones can confirm that you are no good. I really like Laura Nyro, but she just couldn’t hack performing. However some of her songs have been recorded and performed by other people, and she got the fame and recognition (and royalties!) that way. I read that she was very pleased with that, so there’s hope for your son.
      Regarding little girls who are silent, but who talk in other settings, it’s worth comparing the ‘talk experience’ in the different settings. Children don’t decide to be silent. It’s a reaction over which they have no control.
      I’m glad you like reading the posts.
      Best wishes
      PS Where did you see me ‘perform’? I have a feeling it was in Brighton….

  5. Carol Adams says:

    Not Brighton I’m afraid, just downtown Guildford. Strangely enough we have just returned from a couple of days in Brighton where we had booked to see Manic Street Preachers (who were brilliant). They were supported by Scritti Polliti who had been absent from the live scene for a number of years following the lead singer’s suspected heart attack at a performance in the 80’s. It turned out to be a severe panic/anxiety attack caused by stage fright. I hadn’t realised until now that they had originally written and recorded ‘Perfect Day’, which I love. Just goes to show there are some brilliant artists out there who struggle to perform. It’s a shame there are so many rubbish performers (being polite here) who are happy to share their talent for all and sundry. And get well paid for it!!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Ah yes, Guildford. I remember it well. I had a letter afterwards from a school SENCo, on school headed paper, saying how awful her and her six colleagues thought I was.
      I wasn’t sure how to react. However there must have been those who thought differently because the local authority, and one neighbouring booked me to give a series of talks throughout the area.
      I had a similar response from two speech and language therapists at another talk who described my training as a waste of time and totally irrelevant.
      One said this to me after the evening and in front of a parent I was talking to. She was furious and told me not to worry because she had been trying to get support for her son for ages, and would now look elsewhere.
      It’s not nice to be told you are rubbish, but I suppose the subject of how to help quiet children is an emotional one.
      A few weeks later another therapist said he had learned lots of new things, so I felt a bit better after that.
      Scritti Politti! There’s a name to conjour with!
      Nice to hear from you

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