Beat performance nerves for good

Recently I sang a substantial solo in a public performance of Mozart’s Coronation Massgiven by my choir. I hadn’t sought this ‘honour’ but all the other singers in my section made it quite clear that they wouldn’t put themselves in the spotlight, so eventually the finger pointed at me.

I would have had very good reasons for saying ‘no’. Last time I stepped out of the chorus I had been so crippled by nerves that I had to resort to drugs to slow my heart rate, on top of a range of home remedies. The experience had been so traumatic that I had vowed never to repeat it.

An inspiring TED talk

What changed my mind was an inspiring TED talk by American social psychologist Amy Cuddy on how ‘power posing’ – standing in a powerful posture for a few minutes – can boost confidence and minimise stress.

In a fascinating experiment she demonstrated that people who adopted a power pose for two minutes showed significant increases in blood levels of testosterone – the dominance hormone – and decreases in cortisol – the stress hormone. People who stood in a submissive pose for the same amount of time showed opposite effects.

A further experiment found that power posers performed significantly better in simulated job interviews than submissive posers. Amy Cuddy concluded that our bodies can change our minds, our minds can change our behaviour and our behaviour can change outcomes.

I was so convinced by the evidence that I didn’t worry at all during the weeks of rehearsal. I just concentrated on learning my notes and practising. On the day of the concert I was still miraculously free of nerves because I knew exactly what I was going to do.

The Wonder Woman pose

After the warm-up, while the audience were being shown to their seats, I went to a quiet corner and stood for two minutes in the ‘Wonder Woman’ pose – legs astride, hands on hips, head flung back. Then I walked on with the conductor and the concert began.

I am happy to relate that I sang the right notes in the right order and without a hint of tremor in my voice. Afterwards I basked in some very positive feedback and the sense of having overcome a huge personal challenge.

Nearly all presenters are affected by nerves, but while some are able to use them to fuel their performance, others are almost incapacitated.

As a presentation skills trainer I now recommend this approach to people who struggle with nerves. In combination with assiduous preparation, it is an ideal remedy.

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