insights on communication skills

Insights on Communication Skills and Relationship Building

Why We Adore Joe Kowan's Presentation on Stage Fright at TED

Posted by Bridget Beirne on February 3, 2014

Joe Kowan's presentation on how he exploited his stage fright in the name of overcoming it.

“And I’m not making fun of a nurtured, irrational fear
And if I wasn’t ready to face this I sure as hell wouldn’t be here
But if I belt one note out clearly
You’ll know I’m recovering, slowly but surely.”
             -from "The Stage Fright Song" by Joe Kowan

I've been auditioning far longer than I'd like to admit. If I did admit it, I'd have to follow that admission with a justification that I absolutely began auditioning in utero. It's been a long, long time. People often ask me, "Doesn't it get easier? By now it must be old hat." Sure, I tell them, somethings get a little easier. Some things don't.

I still experience fear and performance anxiety before I step in an audition room. Over the years, I've learned to deal with it; to try to channel it into good energy. I've learned warm-ups and mental focus processes through study with teachers and my own self-awareness activities. It's not easy, but it has made a difference.  It's because of this that I am always glad to talk to people- in person or here on the OC Blog- about Stage Fright, and how we can deal with it.

It's no surprise that when I stumbled on Joe Kowan's TED Talk entitled "How I Beat Stage Fright", I was intrigued by the subject matter. When I watched it, I was completely inspired and uplifted. What I saw was not only a charming, funny, well-done presentation, but confirmation once again that those awful feelings- awful, awful feelings- of stage fright can be embraced and used for the good.

How did Joe embrace his fear? He wrote a song about it. Quite literally. Before I give too much away, take a few minutes (seriously, less than 9 minutes!) and watch Joe at TED:



Bringing "us" into the experience

I empathize with Joe not only as a fellow performer, but because he's crafted a presentation that encourages me to do so. His talk allows us to climb right into his fear and experience it WITH HIM. He builds his entire presentation around the story of how he confronted his life- long stage fright head-on by appearing at folk music open mic sessions. He tells a bit of background, and then puts the audience right in the middle of the experience:

"I've never been more terrified- until now."

Honesty is essential to a great performance. Joe makes a brave choice to come clean about the fact that, while he has worked with his stage fright, he still has it! He brings us all to the present and puts us all in the same room by using the simple phrase "until now"- this moment that he and the audience are sharing together. With a few simple words, he has enabled us to empathize with his experience, and root for him all the way.

Feel the fear, and sing about it

It's clear that Joe has spent time not only working on his open mic performances, but on his presentation skills. (There are a few really great examples of a solid neutral position in there!) But where he really gets us is by coupling his honest admission- "guess what! I'm STILL scared!"- with great humor. He has the ability to juxtapose the fairy tale ending that we mightpresentation skills training be expecting with harsh reality, and let us laugh about that fact. (For a perfect example, check out what he does from minute 3:00-3:15.) He gives his audience the opportunity to relax and reflect on the humanity of the situation, so they can think about how they can stare down one of their own fears.

Joe came up with a brilliant way to deal. His imperative to sing was to great, that he decided to start his sets by singing about the crippling stage fright he was experiencing. Part of the brilliance of that idea stems from the fact that he has found a way to instantly deal with the most nerve wracking time in any public performance- openings are the hardest. (They don't call them "opening night jitters" for nothing!) He's hijacked his own fear by creating a fool proof opening- a catchy tune about the fear itself! 

Beyond that merely technical point, the gold that he's found is how to use his personal experience to connect with his audience in a way that is funny and charming. In doing so, he's accomplished what we try to instill in people all the time: Use those nerves! Learn how to work with them, mold them, and accept them, so that you can reach your ultimate goal.

When it comes to dealing with stage fright, exercises and preparation and practice are extremely important. Irreplaceable, in fact. However, so is an honest, head-on approach and a sense of humor. Stage fright happens. But that doesn't mean you can't deal with it.

And maybe I'll learn "The Stage Fright Song" for auditions, just in case...

Our thanks to Joe and TED Talks for making the video available!

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Topics: Public Speaking, Communication, Public Speaking Training, Public Speaking Seminar, Acting, Humor, Theatre, Professional Presence, Self-Awareness Activities