Spotlight Survival Guide

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As I stepped onstage to welcome the whole school to the assembly, my legs shook at earthquake-level proportions, my mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls, and the audience looked like a sea of hungry piranhas, just waiting to bite my head off for messing up. Then something really funny happened…I opened my mouth. And the words came out just fine.

What I wish I had known that day is this: Thriving in a spotlight situation is a straight-up skill. Just like learning to swim, no one’s born with it. And whether you’re about to present to your class, interview for a summer job, or sing a solo, it’s actually normal to feel like you’re drowning in a pool of nervous energy. Our survival guide is designed to help you stay afloat.

 Spotlight Situation: The Class Presentation 

Prep It: You might think that memorizing your history report or reading it word-for-word is the safest bet. But these tactics put a “perfect” speech in your head—a single flub, and you can find yourself thrown totally off course. Plus, it’s easy to lose your place when you’re not actively thinking about your topic, explains Janet Esposito, author of In the Spotlight. So begin by writing out what you want to cover, then turn your presentation into an outline of key points. Transfer those short, memory-jogging phrases to neatly written notecards, and finally, rehearse in front of a friend, a sibling, your mom, a pet—whomever you can wrangle.

Do It: Take a slow walk to the podium. Otherwise, your heart rate will rise, sending you into motor-mouth mode. “When we rush, it’s like our mind is a snow globe,” says public-speaking expert Patricia Stark. “Everything is shaken up.” So count to three before you speak, look up, and go for it.

Pro Tip: Research shows that your audience is most likely to remember your introduction and ending—so practice those most!

 Spotlight Situation: The Big Performance 

Prep It: Whether you’re going to be playing the French horn, dancing in the ballet, or starring in the school play, stepping onstage can feel like a big pass-or-fail test. So aside from practicing, there’s also a little bit of mental training to do. “Forget being perfect—perfectionism fuels fear,” says Esposito. “It’s better to think about all of your worst-case worries in a realistic way. ‘What if I hit a wrong note? Well, I’ll just keep playing. I guess it’s not that big of a deal.’” Once you’ve got the bad stuff out of the way, spend some time visualizing the best-case scenario. Picture yourself being at ease and the audience liking you. It’s calming, and it builds confidence.

Do It: Pumping yourself up in the moments before you step into the spotlight is key, says Stark. “It’s like programming your auto-pilot,” she says. “If you close your eyes and the last thing you tell yourself is, ‘I’ve got this, I’m ready,’ then that’s what you’ll hear onstage.”

Pro Tip: Standing in front of a massive crowd can actually seem dreamlike. So if you start to get wobbly, push both feet into the ground so you feel balanced and steady.

 Spotlight Situation: The Job Interview 

Prep It: So you filled out an application and are days away from getting grilled about the most uncomfortable topic ever: You. “How can I practice,” you think, “when I have no idea what this person is going to ask?” First off, don’t think of it as a one-sided Q&A. It’s a conversation—to get ready, make two lists. The first should be three questions they’re bound to ask you (like “Why do you want to work here?”), and the second should be three questions you want to ask them (“What would a typical day be like?”). Write down answers to the first list, then practice delivering them into the mirror. Commit the other questions to memory, so at the end of the interview, you’re ready to say, “Thanks. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions too?” (They’ll think: Wow! This kid came prepared.)

Do It: They probably won’t decide to hire you in the first 30 seconds —but they could decide not to hire you. So to get them on your side from the start: Dress conservatively, arrive early, make eye contact, and greet your interviewer with a firm handshake and a “Hi, it’s very nice to meet you.” These traits—being punctual, polite, and presentable—are exactly what they’re looking for in an employee.

Pro Tip: Fight the urge to answer a question right away or to blurt out words like well or um. It’s perfectly fine to take a second or two to plan out your answer.

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