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A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science on handling stressful situations reminded me of one of the most difficult challenges I faced as a communications professor – preparing students with stage fright to give a speech in front of the class.

Giving a speech consistently ranks as the greatest fear confronting Americans; more than spiders, terrorism, or nuclear war. I saw this firsthand as a teacher, and it’s one I am sure many attorneys have also experienced, either in themselves or when preparing a witness to take the stand. So how should you deal with stage fright?

There are numerous tips I used to help my students, and that I now use to help those preparing to testify in a deposition or in court. First, the more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel. Confidence is developed through preparation. Feeling like you know what is going to happen in a situation helps minimize anxiety, so the more you practice, the less you fear the “unknown.” Second, record the speaker so he or she can hear how they sound, and recognize areas that need improvement. Many speakers fear that they will look and sound bad when testifying, but once they see themselves on video, they realize they appear competent. Also, speakers frequently cannot recognize problems in their testimony. Once they see it for themselves, they understand where they need work and can then improve those areas. Seeing improvement also builds confidence.

Finally, my first mentor in graduate school emphasized that if you aren’t a little stressed when you are about to speak before a group, something is wrong with you. Speakers need to understand that a little fear is a normal response to the situation, and not get hung up on it. Use your body’s adrenaline to add vibrancy to your delivery. Similarly, the Clinical Psychological Science study suggests speakers should “reinterpret [their] bodily signals” and re-frame the stress as beneficial. Helping speakers understand their fear, and how it can help them, goes a long way toward making them feel confident and comfortable.

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