I still suffer from stage fright

Emma Samms at The Starlight Children’s Foundation

Emma Samms at The Starlight Children’s Foundation - Credit: starlight.org.uk

Who needs LA when your heart is in the Cotswolds?

I had to make a speech yesterday evening. It was at a fundraising event for my charity The Starlight Children’s Foundation. I’ve made speeches before, many of them with the same purpose – to explain what the charity does and why I started it, so I’m not usually nervous. But this was different. 

Firstly, it was at Blenheim Palace (a grander venue would surely be hard to find?) and, secondly, this was my first speech in two years since the pandemic struck.  

I’ve always thought that speeches should either be entirely read out or entirely memorised. And, if it’s a very personal one, as mine usually are, reading it might seem insincere. Trying to do it from memory but having your written speech in your hand, in case your mind suddenly goes blank, only provides a false sense of security as the chances that you’ll be able to find exactly the right spot on the right page, without saying ‘Forgive me’ a few times, are slim. Boris Johnson’s references to Peppa Pig also demonstrate that ad-libbing is usually unwise.

So, last week I dusted off a few brain cells, wrote the speech and then started the task of memorising it. You might think that, as an actress who’s spent her whole career learning pages and pages of dialogue, that talking about something familiar for four minutes would be a breeze, but mental exercise, like physical exercise needs to be maintained – and without recent, regular acting work, I’d say I had definitely got a bit ‘flabby’ in that department. 

Luckily, I have a few tricks up my sleeve – mnemonic devices as they call them – that have really helped a lot over the years. For example, if in one sentence you are talking about a person and then the next sentence is a whole new, seemingly unrelated topic such as motor-racing, all you have to do is visualise the person you were talking about sitting in a racing car, then the connection is, irrevocably, made.  

I’ve also learned that you have to factor in the terror. Even if you’re word-perfect at home, the moment you’re on a hushed film set and all the cameras are pointed at you, or if you’re suddenly looking at the expectant faces of a live audience, your words may fail you. Excessive practise, out loud and in front of tolerant friends and family, is the golden rule. 

The only time I’ve flouted this rule is when I’d been on the same television show long enough to feel relaxed in front of their cameras. After a couple of years on General Hospital, the terror receded and, if I had fewer than 20 pages to memorise, I found I could learn them whilst I was getting my hair done that morning. Any friends who were visiting me at the studio would get stage-fright-by-proxy when they realised how tenuous my grasp was on the lines I needed to deliver that day. But, more often than not, I got away with it. 

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And, thankfully, I think I got away with it last night at Blenheim Palace. I didn’t even take a copy of my speech up on stage with me because, these days, the added complication of having to put on my reading glasses to find any forgotten words, made that far too complicated. They gave me a podium to lean on (I love a podium) and, crucially, the 200 or so people in the audience were wonderfully quiet and attentive. Even better, they were extraordinarily generous during the charity auction later that evening, which will allow Starlight to help thousands of seriously ill children and their families this year.  

Definitely worth the terror of a bit of public speaking.  

Follow Emma on Twitter: @EmmaSamms1