I have a paralyzing fear of public speaking, which is rarely an asset in stand-up comedy. It’s a fear that kept me from trying something I always wanted to do. After nearly 12 years of ignoring my desire to try stand-comedy, six months ago I decided I was done letting a fear determine who I was. Since then I have been on stage just short of 90 times and each time I wrestle my fears.
When it comes to motivating myself to get on stage it’s not only about what I do, but also what I don’t do, because contrary to the cliché metaphor — is the glass half full or half empty? — the glass is completely full. It’s comprised of 1 part liquid (preferably alcoholic) and 1 part air.
I find that my ability to walk on stage in spite of extreme stage fright hinges on feeling prepared. Below are the rules of engagement I’ve adopted to make me feel ready to take the stage.
…. Let your mind run free.
When I was a kid I watched Jaws with my brother. At the end, he told me that sharks could walk on land and that we lived very close to the Chesapeake Bay. I lived in terror that summer, fearing an eminent land shark attack on our cul de sac. I avoided the deep end of the pool, made my mom sit in the bathroom while I showered, and made sure to look both ways for oncoming sharks when crossing the road. In other words, try to keep things in perspective. What’s the worst thing that could happen on stage? After all, land sharks haven’t been sighted since the summer of ’84.
… Focus on the one idiot in the room.
Statistically speaking there will be at least one talking on their cell phone or grunting their disapproval of you during your set — ignore them. Remember, you won’t win over every single member of the audience. And do you really want to? Humans are beautiful, strange, delicate, and occasionally vile animals. If you wouldn’t want that person’s approval in an everyday situation, why do you need it on stage? Concentrate instead on pleasing the people you want to please.
… Be afraid to fail.
Try to fail. An established comic once told me to do something that scares me each time I get on stage. It’s a way of pushing yourself and continuing to learn. By doing this I’ve realized that I have no idea what my limits are. I’ve also found that I learn more by experiencing failure, typically because I’m doing something that isn’t familiar. When success is not the only acceptable outcome, you will find freedom to try something you never imagined doing. The outcome of this effort, whether success or failure, will undoubtedly move you forward.
… Know your audience.
Think beforehand about who will likely be sitting in the audience and cater your material to them. I wouldn’t want to go into a retirement home armed with arsenal of Justin Bieber jokes. If you have time before you get up on stage, check out the audience. Find the friendly faces in the crowd. When I first get up I talk to those new friends and then slowly open up the circle to include the rest of audience.
… Memorize the first paragraph of what you intend to say.
Practice your whole set, but concentrate on the first paragraph. Walk with intent onto the stage, and without pausing, start into your first paragraph with confidence and strength. If you slip up later on, the audience will give you wiggle room as you have proven yourself from the start.
My sister recently had twins and she’s working on teaching them to smile. Babies naturally have a smile reflex (basically a survival instinct of sorts to keep us from rejecting our young), but they learn how to display true happiness by watching the people around them. Essentially, they reflect other people’s smiles and turn them into a learned response. In other words, if you are on stage and you don’t look like you are having fun, the audience will reflect that.
In the end, it’s the decision to not let fear define who you are. Remove your gloves, slap fear in the face, and challenge it to a duel. It might win a few rounds up front, but if you continue to put up a fight you can whittle it down, and in the process, discover that it is you who decides what your limits are, not your fear. This isn’t an overnight change, but nothing life-changing ever is. I remind myself of this every day.
You’re reading this bio because Meg Ferrill, a New York City-based writer and comedian, isn’t famous yet. But, if you’re an avid follower of the New York City comedy circuit you’re likely to catch Meg at one of the many performances she gives every week, bringing fresh and quirky perspectives on relatable topics to the stage. If you’ve never seen Meg before, you’ll immediately recognize her by her consistently disheveled blonde hair, which neither adds to nor hurts her humor. www.megferrill.com
Photo credit: ‘On the stage‘ by Big Stock