We’ve all been there. Minutes before you step in front of your audience, you start feeling it—the butterflies in your stomach. Sweat begins forming on your forehead, your hands tremble, and you start thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” or “I’m not ready for this!” or “What if something goes wrong?”
I’ve battled with these pre-show panic attacks myself thousands of times. And have I found an instant cure for nerves?
Not really. And I think I know why—and you probably do, too. Because those nerves are there for a reason.
I believe that you should always feel a tightness in your stomach before your balloon or magic show or your face painting gig. It helps keep you sharp. Strangely you will tend to make more errors if you lose those pre-show jitters. That is usually a sign that you are over it, that you feel no challenge anymore. Time to go get another job.
But if you’re reading this, you probably get a healthy dose of nerve attacks before a performance. What I can do right now is help you try and harness all that energy and make it work for you. The mind is a very powerful thing and you can steer it in the direction you want.
Tip #1: Correct Your Perspective
Stage magician Jeff McBride explains handling your nerves nicely. We all get butterflies in our stomach before performing; it’s just a matter of getting those butterflies to fly in formation. And this is not just a glib throwaway line. It is entirely achievable.
I have a three-ball juggling routine that I open my Bag of Incredibility show with. I have done this 90-second routine for 12 years. I can do it in my sleep. Then how come this happens? With a big smile, I bounce out to the audience—gentlemen, and ladies and bald-headed babies—and I launch into the juggling. Almost immediately I switch to autopilot as I have done this trick so many times before.
But then I start thinking what if I drop a ball… No prizes for guessing what happens next—I drop a ball.
I have worked some gag lines into the routine to cover the drops … Oops, a sudden gust of gravity!
But really, there is no need for those. I could just say ‘oops.’ And here’s why:
Because I don’t think what I do is important. I KNOW the audience will forget me as soon as they walk out the door.
Once you accept this, it will change what you worry about and how your body reacts to this stress.
If I drop a ball, I truly do not worry that I have somehow ruined my entire routine. I entered the stage with my mind already made up that I am going to have a good time with the audience. So in the grand scheme of things, what’s a dropped ball, or a wrongly called card, or a balloon design that I messed up? It’s not going to matter in the way people remember my act. I’m hoping they remember me and my showmanship skills more.
Always remember that if you mess something up, the world will keep turning, your children will still love you, and your dog will still be wagging his tail and lick your face when you get home.
If you think the audience will rush home from your performance and tell their family how you messed up a trick, or go on Facebook to post the story for all their friends to see, then sadly, it’s my duty to tell you that you are wrong: you may be mistakenly feeling that you are more important than you really are.
I don’t say that in a nasty way because we all like to think well of ourselves. But in the context of battling nerves before a performance, it’s critical that we get it out in the open. You may be important in other areas of your life, but I don’t know of any magician, past or present, who I would class as a game-changer in the history of the world.
I’m not saying that I don’t care if I make mistakes. I do. I try to be as professional and as well-rehearsed as possible. But what I don’t do is let the fear of failure rule my life anymore.
Tip #2: Focus on Being a Performer
Now I know that it’s not just magicians who get the shakes. Anyone who has to stand up in front of an audience and deliver a short speech or any kind of performance suffers from them, too. But magic carries the extra burden of trying to trick the audience—and everyone is TRYING to catch you out. It comes with the territory.
“That’s terrible,” you think to yourself. Just saying it out loud makes it even worse.
Not at all. This is why we are going to take the focus off the magic and put it onto you as a performer.
If you are doing a manipulation act with cards, coins, or billiard balls, then dropping a prop is going to be a big deal. You have to be very rehearsed and you need a way to recover, especially if you are a silent act. You don’t speak at all and you can’t convey your personality in any other way, so all the audience has to remember you by is your moves. So in this case, a drop will be remembered.
This is why I structure my shows to make the magic just a part of the show. Sure I advertise it as a magic show, but really, it’s just a FUN show that has magic in it. This one thing alone helps me build confidence and remove those nerves. My show does not live or die on the strength of my tricks alone. The tricks are simply not that important in the show. They are necessary but they do not take top billing.
So next time you step out in front of an audience, remember these two tips. If you commit a blunder, see it in the right perspective. Focus on being an entertainer rather than being a magician, and just have fun with the audience. Do these and you’ll find yourself calmer and cooler in your next show.