How to Turn Anxiety Into Great Performances at Work
Lessons learned from a career spent onstage.
Helping others build great software is actually my second career. I’ve been making things on the internet for as long as I can remember (one of my earliest projects was a Star Wars fan site written by hand in HTML 2.0), but my first career was in classical music. For over 15 years I trained, practiced, and performed as a clarinetist on stages all over the world, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Musikverein in Vienna. And it took me almost that long to learn how to let go of the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety that naturally come with the territory.
After countless auditions and performances, I finally realized what was really making me nervous: fear of the unknown. Because I lacked the ability to fully assess my own preparation and predict how a performance would go, I got nervous, which of course interfered with my performance during the performance.
Years later, when I found myself speaking and presenting in front of others with a slide deck instead of a clarinet, it came easily. I’ve never experienced the nervous stress that was so familiar earlier in my music career. I spent some time thinking about what I learned as a musician and how those lessons inform my approach to performance at work now.
Once I understood where the fear was coming from, everything else started to fall into place. I was able to organize my preparation — and my mentality — around mitigating that fear instead of obsessively trying to ensure a perfect outcome. Practicing a few foundational concepts can help anyone become more comfortable, confident, and capable onstage.
Decide to believe that others want you to succeed
One of the scariest unknowns we face when we stand up in front of others to perform is their reaction. Will they like it? How will they respond? What questions will they have? What will they think when it’s over? How will their reaction impact me?
In the face of so much that is out of your control, practice believing that everyone else in the room wants you to do well. This must be a conscious choice. Even when others offer feedback or question a part of your story, assume positive intent. Insist to yourself that they are doing their best, just like you are.
I auditioned in front of some of the most impressive, inspiring, intimidating musicians and conductors in the world. And I know — because they told me — that they were always rooting for everyone to play well. Not just because that made their jobs easier, but also because as human beings they’d rather see other people happy than in pain. When I was a student, one of my peers said something to me that changed my life. He never seemed to get nervous, and he always seemed poised and comfortable onstage. When I asked him how he managed it, he said simply, “I just think about everything that could go right instead of what could go wrong.”
Years later, when presenting to CEOs and colleagues, often with massive opportunities at stake, I realized that the same perspectives were guiding me through a different kind of performance.
Master the material, inside and out
As an orchestra and chamber musician, I almost always performed with music in front of me, but when I was truly prepared — and therefore the most at ease — I no longer needed it. The notes and other instructions on the page were a safety net instead of a dependency because I internalized the story I needed to tell my audience through the music.
Mastering the material you’ve planned to cover is what gives you the freedom to be flexible, creative, and agile in how you react and adapt when things don’t go to plan. Sometimes a colleague will skip a measure of music — or ask you that curveball question about ROI. When you’re no longer dependent upon what’s literally on the page, you’ll find you have a lot more brain power available in the moment, and that translates into intellectual leeway.
If you’re not ready to improvise, you’re just not ready. And when you know you’re ready to improvise, the unknown becomes an opportunity and not something to fear.
Practice makes permanent — not perfect
Sight-reading is a valuable skill, but not one you want to show off in front of an audience or a CEO. Mastering every aspect of the material you will present is only possible through preparation and practice, but you have to practice thoughtfully.
Make the time to rehearse by yourself and in front of people you trust. Record the sessions and use what you learn to adjust your content and approach. As a musician, I would often record parts of my practice sessions and drag trusted colleagues into the practice room or to rehearsal so I could run through material under pressure. Often they would hear something I hadn’t yet, or notice a broader structural quirk I could improve in my presentation of a given piece of music. Even recordings from my solo practice were helpful.
Practice isn’t about perfection. It’s about reinforcing good mental, physical, and emotional habits that lead to better outcomes over time. The goal wasn’t to record a certain number of perfect attempts at a given passage, but rather to familiarize myself with where the pitfalls were. Even if I couldn’t nail something every time by the time of the concert, simply having an honest understanding of where I was likely to encounter trouble onstage made it easier for me to be present in the moment, and that equanimity led to better outcomes.
Performance is essential to storytelling
Persuasive performance is essential to effective storytelling, and that can be terrifying — especially when your story requires a presentation or some other kind of public appearance. There are stakeholders to engage, executives to inform and impress, and colleagues to bring along as you build the cross-functional coalition required to ship. But it doesn’t have to be a trial by fire every time. Great performances aren’t built on rising to the occasion. They’re built on elevating the baseline over time.
Anyone can do this with proper practice and preparation. Fear, nervousness, and anxiety are just placeholders for experiences you haven’t had yet. Remember that others want you to succeed, so master your material and make a plan to prepare patiently, and you’ll do great. I know it.
Michael Shane (he/him) is Senior Director, Head of Digital Strategy at Postlight. Looking to bring your digital product to life? Get in touch.
Story published on Jun 22, 2022.