Phobias: The Curse of Stage Fright — Part One


“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who admit they are nervous speaking in front of an audience, and those who lie about it.” 

By Dave Riley

THE SCENE WAS A HUMANITIES CLASSROOM  in a high school in Massachusetts back in the day — way back. One by one, students were giving brief speeches. Brother Joseph Gerard had just called on one who came to the front. The kid looked out at the small group — there were only ten people, including the speaker, in the class.

He cleared his throat. He stammered a bit. He said a few words. He paused. He looked around. He tried a few more words, but seemed to choke on them. He coughed. And then, inexplicably, he headed for the door and out of the classroom. It turned out he was scared to death of speaking in public, even here where the “public” was made up of nine close buddies with whom he lived 24/7 every day of the school year.

“I’m different than most people,” the young man told Brother Joe later. “I get nervous when I speak in front of a group.”

Brother Joe would have none of it. “No, you’re not different, you ninny,” he said. “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who admit they are nervous speaking in front of an audience, and those who lie about it. You’re just like everyone else.”

The reason why I remember this scene so vividly after all these years is that I — gulp! — was the kid. I can’t ever remember being afflicted like this before, but I sure was that day. Several years later, just after high school I found myself in a situation where I had to give short talks — very short talks — every week or two before about sixty people. I had all kinds of butterflies for an entire day before each presentation. But somehow I got through them all, and began learning, bit by bit, how to cope with my jitters.

YOU’D THINK A GUY WITH THOSE NERVES would have chosen a career path that didn’t involve lecterns and microphones, say maybe delivering the mail or driving a bus. But no, my first professional work was managing a small administrative department at a defense-oriented R&D firm in northern California. The job required that I give talks several times a month to small groups of new staff members and to entire departments of up to fifty people, many of whom were PhDs or, at the very least, engineers with masters degrees.

Really? A guy with my anxieties? But the pay was okay, and the working conditions otherwise terrific, so I did it.

Then I taught high school for eighteen years, standing in front of about 160 kids a day.

Go figure.

Eventually, for the last twenty years before retiring, I settled down to being a non-public- speaking freelance writer for banks and high-tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I learned a number of things about public speaking over the years, but by far the single most important one was this: nerves aren’t your enemy, they are your friend.

I repeat, nerves aren’t your enemy, they are your friend.

“If you feel nothing unusual inside you when you stand up before an audience,” the late Art Linkletter once said, “you are probably on the verge of delivering one of the world’s all-time terrible talks.” Tension, on the other hand, causes you to play to the audience and raise the level of your performance. More about this in next week’s installment.

How about pros? you ask. Do they ever suffer from stage fright?

You bet your bippy they do. One of the most famous examples of a brain freeze in the history of broadcasting occurred in 1931 when the storied announcer Harry Von Zell was narrating a birthday tribute to President Herbert Hoover. Tension got the better of him, however, and he introduced the President as “Hoobert Heever.”

JOAN ACOCELLA, DANCE CRITIC FOR THE NEW YORKER, has an excellent article on stage fright in the August 3 issue in which she cites a number of notable examples of not only actors and other speakers but of dancers, musicians and other performers. The article is actually a review of the book “Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright” by musician Sara Solovitch.


Stage fright can prove to be a daunting hurdle for even these most seasoned professional.

Stage fright can prove to be a daunting hurdle for even the most seasoned professional.

“In 1989,” Ms. Acocella writes, “Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title role in Richard Eyre’s production of ‘Hamlet’ at London’s National Theatre, turned on his heel in the middle of the show and walked off the stage, never to return. (In the twenty-six years since then, he has acted only in movies.)”

Laurence Olivier was in his late fifties when was visited by a spell that lasted, intermittently, for five years, “At the time,” Ms. Acocella wrote, ”he was the most celebrated stage actor in England. How could he be frightened of failing? Ditto Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Baryshnikov was the most famous ballet dancer in the world. … [b]ut he experiences terrible stage fright, and says that it has only got worse over the years.”

Cicero, Ghandi and Thomas Jefferson all admitted fearing speaking in public.

In her book. Sara Solovitch describes how stage fright gripped people as varied as major league baseball player Steve Blass, megachurch Pastor Rick Warren and singer/actress Barbra Streisand. And Ms. Solovitch, an accomplished pianist, doesn’t spare herself.

“She got through the Eastman School of Music’s preparatory program,” Ms. Acocella writes. “Then she quit studying piano, grew up, got married, had children, and became a journalist. In her late forties, though, she drifted back to the piano, taking a course at a community college. By this point, she had no professional ambitions. Surely, she thought, she would now be able to perform calmly. But when her teacher asked her, one night, to play in front of the class, her hands began shaking so hard that she could barely strike the keyboard.”


During my high school teaching career, the most successful class I taught — oh, why lie about it; the only successful class I taught — was a nine-week course for graduating seniors entitled “Speech for Shaky Speakers.” The audience was self-selecting — otherwise confident kids would slink into the classroom the first day in hopes of receiving a miracle oratory pill.

But there was no pill. The first words out of my mouth were, “Hi. This is Speech for Shaky Speakers, and at least half of you are going to talk for several minutes in front of the class today. The other half will talk tomorrow.”

There was visible movement as startled students looked around, seemingly hunting for an emergency exit. But no one left, and most of them, I can say from personal observation and student evaluations, benefited, some quite mightily. In next week’s post you’ll see why.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.