Taking your face-to-face confidence on stage

I hear this from students all the time: “I can talk with people just fine one-on-one. In fact, I consider myself an extrovert! But when I get up in front of a group, it’s different.”

Here’s my response: “It’s only different if you think about it differently.”

I’ve recently read several good articles for building confidence on stage, like Kendal Martin’s Practice Confidence, that effectively advise activities for person-to-person interaction to build confidence to transfer to the stage. Like Powdermilk Biscuits, they give shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. But there’s this whole other class of people who, though far from shy, lack confidence just in front of a group.

What’s a nervous extrovert to do?

  • More than anything, recognize a truth uttered by Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus long ago: it’s not what happens to you but what you think about what happens to you that determines your experience (my paraphrase). If you have no trouble one-on-one, but feel nerves in front of a group, you’re trying to interact with an imaginary creature: the audience. It’s a useful concept for planning, but really there is no such thing. It’s just a collection of individuals, and you can interact with them one individual at a time, for five seconds apiece, while the rest of them eavesdrop.
  • You’re also detecting a biochemical phenomenon (the presence of adrenaline and related chemicals in your system) and interpreting it as fear. It’s just as sensible to think of what you’re feeling as excitement.
  • Introverts thrive on public speaking at times, because it is a planned conversation. Introverts like to form their thoughts before speaking, so the “planned” aspect is welcome. Extroverts form their thoughts by speaking, and may pressure themselves too much to exactly reproduce what they rehearsed. You do need to prepare for a speech, but you don’t need to memorize every word, and if the actual speech unfolds differently than planned, it’s OK, as long as you still achieve your desired outcome.

The bottom line, then, is to prepare so that you aren’t winging it, but only to the level of organization–don’t try to memorize the words, and for all that’s holy don’t read a manuscript to an audience. Plan the thoughts you will present, and have a series of conversations (which you are already comfortable doing), making a personal connection with lots of individuals. And be grateful for the energy and excitement you’re feeling–it just means you care about what you’re doing, and that you’ll have an energetic delivery if you’ll just get out of your own way.

Are you one of those folks comfortable in one-on-one, but “nervous” about getting in front of a group? What advice would you give?

Share this, please!


  1. Scott Danielson

    Great way to change a speaker’s perspective. The disconnect between conversation and speaking was something I struggled with.

    I personally noticed that making eye contact with audience members actually made everything much easier. Typically they were friendly faces and it made what I was doing feel much more personal.

    Nice article!

    • Donn King

      Thank you, Scott! I appreciate hearing your experience, and glad to hear it fits the model. So many people go through those little tricks to avoid making actual eye contact, and it turns out that they’re avoiding the one thing that would make the experience easier!

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