Cass asks:

My question is more of a concern. I already have full time work in the theatre so celebrancy for me was more of a service I wanted to provide for friends and family. I think celebrating love is one of the most beautiful and important things we can do as a society and for me it has always been about the intimacy of the couple. I used to be quite a confident public speaker when I was in high school but now I’m almost 30 I feel absolute terror at the thought of performing such an important task in front of potentially hundreds of people. I know the day is obviously about the couple and not me but I don’t want my nerves to interfere with their special moment. Do you have advice (apart from practice) to combat serious stage fright?

I suspect Josh would write something a response to this question that would be far more poetic than the response I’m about to give, and would refer to something about forgetting about the guests, this isn’t a performance, you’re just having a conversation with two people about creating their marriage. But I’m not poetic and I can’t forget the guests, and I totally understand the fear of public speaking because I used to have it as well.

A little history from me. When I was at high school I was one of the drama kids. I was also a dancer and a music student. In short, I was a performer, and I was on the stage in one way or another every chance I got. I never suffered from stage fright; nerves were always with me, but I strongly believe nerves are good for you. I was pretty much completely confident to get up there and do whatever needed doing in whatever medium I was working at the time. Looking back, I can now see that the main thing was that I was always comfortable with the work; I always knew my lines, I always knew the choreography, I always knew the music. I’d practised and I was confident and comfortable that I would “get it right”.

Then I got older. And way more self-conscious about the way other people perceived me, whether I was going to embarrass myself, and whether I would “get it right”. After uni I spent years working in administrative, behind the scenes roles; I ran a lot of events, and was always happy running around in my blacks, but as soon as someone suggested that maybe I might want to present at one of the conferences or workshops I was running, I froze. Again looking back, I’ve now realised it was because I was never completely confident with the content I was working around; I worked mostly in medical research and often felt out of my depth when it came to understanding the content and answering questions about it. (I also had a boss who took great pleasure in destroying my self-confidence, but that’s a story for another day.)

And then I decided I was going to be a celebrant. For someone not particularly comfortable standing in front of people and presenting, nuts, right? But here was the difference: I knew that I would be telling stories I had written myself, that I would be talking about relationships I had grown to know as if they were my own, and that if all else failed, I would have a script to rely upon.

So now here I am, five and a half years in to being a celebrant, and I’m not only confident presenting in front of groups of people with a script in hand (at weddings and at funerals) but I’m also comfortable talking to groups of people for an entire day with no script when I’m training. I firmly believe this confidence and comfort comes from talking about a topic I am completely comfortable with, one that I know inside out and back to front: celebrancy and how it’s done. I’m saying my words, I’m presenting my ideas, and I’m teaching content about which I know all of the things. For me, losing the stage fright has been all about being comfortable with the content. I still get nervous about a particularly difficult funeral or when I’m teaching a new topic for the first time, but I’m no longer paralysed with fear the way I used to be.

So now to the practical suggestions I came up with for Cass. The only suggestions I have for combatting stage fright are:

  • practise, practise, practise, in the backyard, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the car, and not just ceremonies but at something like Toastmasters, which is a community organisation for public speaking education. Go along to a few of their sessions, where it doesn’t matter if you stuff up, and see if that helps (this one is all about being comfortable with your content)
  • meditation and mindfulness; see if you can find someone to teach you some relaxation techniques for using at ceremonies before you’re about to speak
  • if all else fails, low dose beta blockers; your GP can prescribe them. Many professional musicians and speakers use them before performing, and my friends who have used them rave about them!

I hope this is helpful for some of you. Feel free to share your tips and tricks for stage fright in the comments!