What Red Skelton told me about being nervous

It’s hard to believe that forty years have passed since I started teaching students how to improve their speaking skills. I’ve seen many students work on their speeches and, with nervous anticipation, get up and speak.

One of the biggest problems they have is nervousness—how to get over it.  You could try a few drops of Newton’s Homeopathics #32 Stage Fright. But I have a better idea.

I tell my students, don’t work at trying to get over your nervousness; use that excitement, that anticipation, to try to communicate with energy to your audience.

The biggest remedy for nervousness is to practice ahead of time, at least a half-dozen times or more. That way you’ll know the ideas you want to get across to your audience.

Years ago, I heard the actor and comedian Red Skelton in a radio interview, saying how anxious he was when he first started on live television, after a long career in film. He was so nervous, he said, that he had a bucket on both sides of the set; he would go off-stage and throw up between scenes. A few years later, I had the chance to meet Red Skelton, in a Minneapolis hotel lobby. He was going to perform at the University of Minnesota the next day.

I asked him how he got over his nervousness. He said, simply, know your material. The more he knew what was in the scene, the more he practiced it, the less nervous he was.

Now, I’m not talking about memorizing your speech—that’s way too hard, and completely unnecessary. Once you’ve gotten the main points down in an outline, reduce the outline to speaking notes—key words, short phrases. No manuscript, no complete sentences. Then practice as many times as you can, a dozen times is not too many, using the key word/phrases speaking notes. Don’t worry about saying it the same way each time. Use different words each time you practice—just concentrating on the ideas. Then have a conversation with your audience, talking about those ideas.

I think it works.

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