A Psychological Trick Used by Public Speakers

By virtue of what I do for work and passion, I seldom go a week without public speaking. And while I love doing it every time, it just so happens that — despite the ice breakers I have at hand — at that moment before the session starts or I am being introduced, my heart begins to race and panic sets in. It is no longer as alarming but it used to be pretty bad back in the day.

So early on as I started getting these speaking invitations, I started imagining myself as someone other than the current me — someone confident enough to speak to Presidents. The first time I did it was when I was in JSS2 going to JSS3 at my secondary school graduation event. It was a crowd like nothing I had seen before. The hall was full to the brim and I was about to be called up to recite Ewi — a Yoruba praise-singing poetry. I was anxious and felt all my saliva dry up. I started feeling the details I had committed to memory fade away and imagine the look of horror on the face of Mrs Lawal — my teacher — who had spent the last weeks coaching me. So, in a moment of trepidation, I started imagining it was someone else who was going to do the recitation and that this person was treated to a fine meal by his mum because of his great performance. By the time I finished the recitation, the thunderous ovation was deafening. I was the subject of discussion in school and at home for weeks after. I never imagined it. Since then until a few years ago, I made use of it — use of someone other than myself.

A few hours ago, I realized that what I did is called adopting an alter ego. It is a technique used by some of the best performers in the world.

Adele used to be scared of speaking in front of crowds. She threw up a couple of times. Her severe stage fright led her to escape through a fire exit at a show in Amsterdam once. So she created an alter ego called ‘Sasha Carter’ — someone whom people would listen to and feel like they are listening to God. That’s what she turns to when it’s time for her to perform.

It’s a mental trick; a psychological tool.

Rowan Atkinson, the legendary British actor, experienced bullying as a child because of his stutter. But as soon as he starts performing on stage, his speech impediment miraculously disappears. According to him,

“I find when I play a character other than myself, the stammering disappears. That may have been some of the inspiration for pursuing the career I did.”

Beyonce said she also created an alter ego and named her ‘Sasha Fierce’. This allowed her to perform with a level of confidence she herself didn’t yet have.

“I’m not like her in real life at all. I’m not flirtatious and super-confident and fearless like her.”

It’s about thinking of yourself in the third person. Those who did my assignment for the career planning session would remember a book I recommended that dwelled on imagining oneself outside oneself. It talked about the projection of oneself as one would want to be on one’s deathbed. It’s incredibly powerful for public speaking too. You are making use of Illeism — the act of referring to oneself in the third person instead of the first person. Illeism has been proven to help reduce anxiety and build confidence.

If you have seen that interview where LeBron James talked about his decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat, you have seen Illeism in action. He said,

“I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.”

Cary Grant considered by some to be the “greatest leading man Hollywood had ever known” said he used a ‘pretend man’ until he did not need him anymore. In his words,

“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until, finally, I became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point along the way.”

Some of the greatest performers in history were terrified of speaking publicly. And they provide evidence that stage fright is something others can overcome.

If they did it, so can you!

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