LENGTH: 15 minute read.
People ask me all the time whether I still get nervous before a performance. The short answer is yes.
The long answer, however, is:
That some experts claim nervousness is fear of the opinions of others. Maybe. I would argue that pre-performance jitters are a good thing. Nerves mean you care enough about what you’re about to do. Nerves enact in our amygdala – the part of the brain that receives the emotion of fear (or survival instincts) - where we respond with one of the three F’s – flight, fight or freeze. (Take a moment to think about which F is most relevant to you.)
Performing is a confronting thing. You are exposing yourself creatively and emotionally. The only way it gets easier is by consistent repeated effort – that is, getting up there, doing it, and getting down again.
Having started as a solo singer/songwriter as a highly insecure teenage girl, there were times when my voice would lose pitch and I would forget which chords to pick... in the middle of big open shopping malls with 100+ people feeling sorry for me. After that I hibernated for a week, covering my face with my sleeping bag, resolved to never get on stage ever again. But the week passed, I picked up my guitar, sang to the wall unit, and fell in love with performing all over again.
All that to say – you get over it, and you can’t let one bad gig determine the rest of your future.
Now as a Performance Poet, whether I’ve practiced a hundred times or one time, I siphon my anxiety by telling myself “well I can only do my best”. And that’s just it. Your best is all you can do. Your best is in your control. Your best is better than you probably think it is.
So how do you kill it on stage? You maximize your effort in these three sections:
Before Getting On Stage
While You’re On Stage
After Being On Stage
(yep – there’s an after!)
Regardless of what you do, (and this might seem super obvious) the whole goal is to connect to a whole room of people through your performance.
BEFORE GETTING ON STAGE
1.) You must possess killer conviction on what you're about to say or do.
Plainly speaking - if you’re not feeling it, no one else will.
I don't care how pretty or eloquent you think it sounds. People are better bullcrap detectors than we think. When I performed my 6 minute long piece “Privilege” at Bankstown Poetry Slam, it came from months of wanting to spotlight what we had as an Australian society, and whether we were yielding our silver spoons responsibly. But in the first part of the poem I directed the whole line of attack to myself before pointing the finger at anyone else. Do I think I’m a super privileged white Asian Australian? Yes. Do I think I’m using my position responsibly? Sometimes. It was this core belief that I mulled over and meditated on while writing the piece, practicing the piece and thus performing the piece that formed the bedrock of a strong performance.
In other words, I had to successfully convince myself before I could take anyone else on this paradigm-exploring bandwagon.
You want to allow your mind the freedom to engage with the audience, and not be preoccupied with trying to remember lines.
Lack of preparation is both apathy and anxiety inducing, and doesn’t do justice to your talent and hard work. So show them what they paid for; then give ‘em a little more! No reading from a paper or your phone, unless it's new s*** you're desperate to share in your feature set.
You can wing it if you’re a tried-and-tested theatre-sports improv-extraordinaire, but for most of us, winging it is for overconfident amateurs on an Open Mic night.
Whether you’re delivering a talk or a spoken word piece, having your content lodged into neat sections inside your mind will prepare you for curve balls. The mic stand may be difficult to adjust, the audience might be listless and fidgety, the guy before you might have been absolutely phenomenal and now you’re feeling intimidated… whatever – control the controllable; that is, your own lines!
Preparation is crucial. Write your poems and speech content, get feedback from an expert (send it to me at Contact Jess if you can’t think of anyone else) and, using your killer conviction about what truth you want to share as a guide – edit brutally.
Open Mic nights are fantastic for practicing new material. Road testing on a small and safe crowd is a great way of gauging which lines will and won’t work. I have a few select friends I practice new pieces on, but as of late, I have learned to gauge for myself whether my pieces are filled with inside jokes for a party of everyone or for a party of one.
Practice consistently. Capitalise on any voluntary energy you have to practice, force yourself to go for just 5 min when you don't feel that ounce of motivation (which is 90% of the time for people studying or working day jobs). Remember, be kind to yourself if you stumble over your words – it’s the consistent repeated practice that will perfect your performance. Natural talent is nice, but if it doesn’t marry with discipline, it just remains a stagnant, diminishing-in-attractiveness, useless, loser.
Know your lines back to front, to the point that when you walk down the street your lips operate in default muscle memory, spitting your lines like butter. To give another example – as you don’t have to concentrate on each foot fluttering down step-by-step on a staircase, speaking out memorized lines should be effortless.
WHILE YOU’RE ON STAGE
3.) Serve and connect with your audience.
This is why over-preparation is crucial. When my legs kick up those stage steps my mind resolves to one surefire never-fail strategy – serving my audience.
I look into a stranger’s face; I see their expectation. Suddenly I want to make them laugh, smile, to wow them with my stolen TEDx talk facts; I want them to renew their minds about their own self-worth, to start thinking they are beautiful or stronger than they gave themselves credit for. I want the 30 minutes of their undivided attention to be worth the devotion. And then I forget I was ever nervous to begin with.
To sound like an over-used cliché, I realize it was never about me – that the better my performance is, the clearer the message will be and the more my audience will benefit from what I have told them through the story I’m telling.
Watching you perform is giving the gift of an experience to an audience member. So make it a good one. Don’t squander the privilege of getting their attention for 5, 30 or 60 minutes. I’ve done that in the past many times, indulged on stage, and suffered from an ego hangover afterwards. I’m not having a dig at people who perform their broken relationship stories, but this is what separates the pros from the amateurs – the revelation-turned-attitude to serve others with your talent.
If you believe your reflections about a breakup will comfort someone else, then go for it, but the audience are not your therapists. Where are you leading them? Where are your stories taking their minds? Will it add value to their lives? Will it inspire them to become better people? I understand the niches that exist in the Slam Poetry scene, but it will be extremely difficult to engage with an audience when your primary motive is self-glorification.
4.) Leverage your natural personality and strengths
I advocate for personal development - especially in Poets, Writers and Artists because your work is more influential than you think. So know thyself. Don't try on someone else's persona. If it's not you, it won't work. Alas, if you’re on a journey to discovering your stage persona, and don’t mind embarrassing yourself, then by all means go for it! Poetry Slam audiences are usually very kind.
According to the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator I am an ENFP; highly driven by growth and contribution, obsessed with clarity and everyone reaching their potential. I’m also Australian-born with Chinese Indonesian parents. These hard-wired facts drive and comprise my personhood. They will doubtlessly emerge through my work. Extroverted? Crack jokes, run polls, target an audience member with short conversation.
Introverted? Speak honestly and from the heart, speak with conviction. Be deep. If you feel connected to the audience through your genuineness, maybe push yourself to crack a joke?
Whatever you do – just be you, be true.
5.) Spoiler Alert: You’ll make a mistake.
Another spoiler alert: No one will actually care. Only you will!
The majority of stage time should be spent connecting with your audience. If you’ve done this successfully, one little slip up is not going to hurt. On the same token, a perfectly memorized piece doesn’t guarantee a performance that connects. When I performed at BPS, I stumbled on 2 lines that were pretty important. No one noticed, no one cared, and watching the video back I realized 90% of the power behind the connection was in my delivery, confidence and body language. On the forefront of your on-stage mind should be, “yay! Let’s connect and have a great time together!”. You would have completed all the hard work in the Before.
AFTER BEING ON STAGE
6.) As long as you’re still at the event, everyone’s eyes are on you.
You have been asked to speak because you’re considered a thought-leader, more or less.
Give props to the organisers, thank them for the opportunity. Nobody likes an ungrateful diva. It’s not just your performance people are watching, but your example as someone who has asked to feature/guest speak. This means young aspiring artists or speakers are watching your body language, conduct, swagger and confidence. The honour of being asked to speak is the equivalent to teaching without a degree or being told “hey, you’re awesome, and this opportunity is proof that everyone else thinks you’re awesome and skilled too.”
So bask in it. It’s an honour to be affirmed for your skill, talent and to be considered an authority.
7.) And finally, keep connecting. You're there to build community.
A few years ago I made a YouTube video called “Dealing with Post-Gig Praise”, because a Poet asked me what she should do when people bee-line up to her and heap praise on her gifts and talents. A naturally humble and gentle person, she disclosed the awkwardness that followed after the endless compliments: “Where do I go from there?”
If/when you receive post-performance praise, give a gracious thank you, and direct the conversation back to them. Ask them a question; keep it simple: "So do you come here often?"
Similar to point 3, your goal as a thought-leader is to nurture and connect. So view this as an extension of your performance, where you have just talked and shared your bit, and now a select few audience members want to respond.
But these select few audience members might be aspiring performers, writers and speakers... and I'm all about that legacy-leaving life. Hope you are too.
Are you a Spoken Word Poet, Musician, Keynote Speaker or other type of Performer? What extra tips would you give to help people kill it on stage?
Share in your comments below!
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