As a storyteller, probably the two most common questions I am asked are “How do you remember so many stories?” and “Isn’t it scary to perform in front of so many people?”
I can keep my stage fright under control if I’m more prepared–not just with my material, but also my ability to deal with those times when something goes wrong! Here are a few tips that I find helpful.
1. If you suddenly forget your words, not sure what comes next–stop and take a couple of deep breaths. This re-oxygenates your brain and clears out the mental fuzz.
2. Always have water at hand! If you have a momentary mental lapse, take a few sips of water until your brain gets back in sync. Also, bottles with the sippers/straws don’t cover your face while you are drinking and there is less chance of dribbling water on your clothes. If you are already feeling self-conscious, you certainly don’t want to look like you also have a drooling problem.
3. Don’t eat or drink foods that will mess with your voice for several hours prior to going on–nothing with sugar or carbonation. Caffeine can dry the throat and milk creates extra mucus. Water is best or a mild herb tea if you need flavor. (The basic rule is to drink enough water so your pee is clear–but honestly, if I drank that much water before going on stage, I’d have to wear a catheter!) It wouldn’t hurt to be aware of how specific foods affect you; it was storytelling that lead to my discovering I was gluten intolerant.
4. If your voice isn’t up to par, eat apple slices. This is an old trick with opera singers.
5. Find those one or two people in the audience who are obviously hanging on your words and perform for them. Your audience wants to see you succeed, but keep an eye out for those especially enthusiastic folks. Often these are people you don’t know or they don’t know the material you are performing. (If Gene is doing a solo program, he always asks me to sit in the back. That’s because if he makes a mistake, usually the audience won’t have a clue–but I will. He says I grimace when there is an error and if he sees me do that, it throws him off.)
6. Jackie Torrence is considered one of the greatest American storytellers. I had a chance to interview her about a year before she died. I queried her on what made a great storyteller and she emphasized that being able to tell a story perfectly didn’t come anywhere near the top of her list. Instead, she said for her the greatest indicator of a talented performer was the ability to really screw up, laugh it off, and keep on going.
Being able to make light of a royal screw-up has many benefits. If you are squirming with angst because of a flub, your listeners will start feeling sorry for you, and in turn, start squirming themselves. You can choose to ignore it and keep on telling—and hopefully your and your audience will relax again. Or, you can acknowledge what happened with a smile or even a joke if the tone of your story allows it. This way you are letting your listeners know you won’t be emotionally scarred for life by your mistake and they can laugh with you and settle back into your story.
I’ll never forget one of our performances for a Winter Solsticelebration that was rife with prop failures–an easel holding our flip chart we were using gradually collapsed and then my clip-on microphone fell off unnoticed and the sound guy had to run on stage to retrieve it and re-clip it before I accidentally stepped on it. Honestly, I think 10 years ago I would have left the stage devastated and probably in tears. But that night, Gene and I just started cracking jokes about the mishaps and kept right on going. After the show a number of folks in the audience told us how funny our story was and how clever we were to insert the equipment failures into the story–we were so at ease with the chaos, they assumed it was deliberate. Score!
7. Now as far as being prepared with your material, that means practice, practice and practice some more. Find what works best for you. I like to write out my stories, others prefer drawing them, and some like to record their stories and go back and listen to them. Gene and I often practice our tandem tales in front of a mirror when we are first learning a story so our motions are smooth and synchronized with each other. If you have access to a video camera, record your story for review. And of course, tell every chance you get. If you belong to a guild or have a small group of friends with good critiquing skills, test out your story with them.
And will knowing all this eliminate butterflies? Probably not, I still get them from time to time. But putting some of these techniques to work will help put you at ease and let you have fun. Now get out there and sprain a tongue!