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How trainers cope with stage fright

Starting a class with a bad case of stage fright is not the way to go about your business. Unfortunately, nearly everyone, even IT trainers, experiences this type of performance anxiety. Learn what causes it and how other trainers manage it.


It may sound ironic for an IT trainer to experience something as unnerving as stage fright. After all, you’re used to speaking in front of classrooms and taking your power to the people, right? However, nearly everyone, even professional speakers and entertainers, experiences performance anxiety at some point. The experts that we interviewed said that while it is not possible to eliminate altogether, stage fright is manageable—and can be used to make you a more effective trainer.

What causes stage fright?
We’ve all experienced it. Butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, trembling hands, and gut-wrenching intestinal distress indicate a world-class case of stage fright. But what causes it?

According to Ronald E. Thompson, a licensed psychologist and performance coach in Calais, VT, stage fright has both psychological and physical components. Psychologically, Thompson said, stage fright occurs when there is “social vulnerability” and it’s a natural defense human beings use to avoid bad or frightening things.

“If we don’t experience stage fright in one area, it’ll be in another,” Thompson said. “We all have our Achilles’ heel, and we can have a lot of expertise in one area and then in another area, not. It’s whenever we feel vulnerable that the performance anxiety kicks in.”

An IT trainer could experience stage fright when addressing a group of his or her peers, when being evaluated by a training manager, or when teaching unfamiliar subject matter.

Let’s get physical
Physically, Thompson said, stage fright involves a biochemical reaction that occurs when the body’s adrenal glands (a pair of complex endocrine organs near the kidneys) produce hormones and adrenaline.

Remember how it feels to have a semi-tractor trailer truck bearing down on you as you merge onto the interstate, with the truck’s headlamps so close you feel them searing the back of your neck? You most likely experienced a sense of imminent danger followed by an increased heart rate and a sudden flush of perspiration as you put the pedal to the floor and joined the flow of traffic.

In these circumstances, the adrenaline in your body works overtime. Adrenaline, a colorless, crystalline hormone, is the principal blood-pressure raising substance secreted by the adrenal gland. Thompson said when there is an excess of adrenaline in the bloodstream combined with a negative stimulus, you are practically shaking hands with stage fright.

“What results is the fight-or-flight response,” Thompson said. “That’s really a very primitive defense that we use to either fight or leave [a stressful situation].”

How to master your fear
Dave Murphy of Elkridge, MD, founder of the International Association of Information Technology Trainers, said he gets the jitters every time he teaches a class of fellow IT trainers.

Murphy, who has taught technical subjects for more than 20 years and software applications for the last 10 years, said that there’s just something different about teaching your peers.

“What I’ve been blessed to find is I just tell people who I am, tell them my passion, ask them to listen, and don’t ever try to fool them,” Murphy said. “The best thing is what my dad always taught me when I was a boy, ‘Dave, just be yourself, and people will always like you and they’ll respect you.’”

Murphy said he has hired trainers for 12 years, and the best ones are not “college whizzes or geeks.” They’re theater and liberal arts majors who understand how businesses use software and are very good at explaining it.

Suleiman Adem, a training manager with Top Tek Computing in London, Ontario, said he summons pleasant images in his mind and uses them as biofeedback before tackling a training assignment.

“I try to remain cool and not get excited easily,” Adem said. “The training introduction is probably the most difficult part of the presentation for me. But as a trainer, you always have people in front of you. It actually becomes quite easy for me to talk to large groups of people [after the introduction].”

Then there are those lucky trainers who never or rarely experience stage fright. Take Renee Atkinson, of Austin, TX, for example. Atkinson is a training specialist for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, who said she is extremely comfortable speaking in front of people—even during a recent job interview.

Atkinson said she draws upon her spiritual beliefs, and that helps her channel any anxiety and focus it to her advantage.

“I’m always amazed at how comfortable I am when I get in front of people,” Atkinson said.
How do you manage stage fright or performance anxiety? Are there any techniques you rely on that work for you? Or, are you one of those rare birds who is worry-free when the spotlight shines? Share your experiences with us by sending us an e-mail.

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