Don’t Be Nervous, It’s Not About You

I do a lot of public speaking and am generally pretty comfortable doing it. The place I get most nervous is up on stage. In a classroom or hall full of 50-100 people, no problem. On stage, in a theatre, and my nervous energy starts to rev up.

It doesn’t approach anywhere near paralysis, but it is there.

At the last theatre I worked at, I got pretty accustomed to the space and the general energy of the people. But now that I am standing up in a new space, I gotta start all over again.

I took a little guidance from a post Seth Godin made about public speaking on Monday to prepare for my appearance before the performance we had Tuesday night.

In his post, “Speaking in public: two errors that lead to fear,” he says:

1. You believe that you are being actively judged

2. You believe that the subject of the talk is you

When you stand up to give a speech, there’s a temptation to believe that the audience is actually interested in you.

This just isn’t true. (Or if it is, it doesn’t benefit you to think that it is).

You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged. The topic of the talk isn’t you, the topic of the talk is the audience, and specifically, how they can use your experience and knowledge to achieve their objectives.


If you dive into your (irrelevant to the listener) personal hurdles, if you try to justify what you’ve done, if you find yourself aswirl in a whirlpool of the resistance, all you’re providing is a little schadenfreude as a form of entertainment.

On the other hand, if you realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead, you can leave the self-doubt behind and speak a truth that the audience needs to hear. When you bring that to people who need it, your fear pales in comparison.

Not the simple advice found in, “imagine everybody in their underwear,” but probably more useful to you in the process of preparing for your moment in the spotlight so you don’t start getting worked up in advance.

Incidentally, this is the same advice usually given about marketing and advertising–It isn’t about you, it is about your audience and what is valuable to them. So you shouldn’t be spending a lot time listing accomplishments trying to justify your organization, but rather make the focus about your audience and how they benefit.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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