How to Stay Calm when Giving a TED Talk (or Doing Anything High-Pressure)

How to Stay Calm when Giving a TED Talk (or Doing Anything High-Pressure)

Written by Emilie

Topics: Featured, Public Speaking

I couldn’t sleep the night before my TED talk. I woke up around 4am and floated in and out of sleep for the rest of the night. My mind was whirling. I tried meditation, yoga, tea, took a bath. It wasn’t happening.

I was slotted to speak second-to-last the next day, at nearly 6pm. It was going to be a long day and I needed my sleep.

But I was determined not to freak out.

As I was up pondering the potential significance of doing this TED talk, it occurred to me that I wasn’t afraid of forgetting the speech. I had practiced 2-3 times a day in the weeks leading up to the event. I could recite my speech in my sleep (pretty sure I did that a few times). Nope, it wasn’t the talk that I was worried about, it was my nerves.

My nerves were what could throw me off. I could see myself getting preoccupied with the stress on stage, becoming completely petrified, and THEN blanking on the words. I suddenly understood the meaning of that famous quote: “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Fear was what could mess this up for me.

When it comes to nailing something massively high stakes, preparation is a given. You need to know your stuff inside and out. But once that’s handled, it’s your mind that you really need to manage. Here are a few things I did to stay centered and keep my head in a good place despite the lack of sleep the night before and the long day ahead of me.

1. Pay Attention to How You Move Your Body

Our emotional states are influenced by how we move physically. Even if you are tired, try standing up straight, taking up space, planting your feet firmly, and moving the way you think a highly confident person would move.

Luckily, there was a variety troop performing right before me in the program. They were such fun, and totally had a silent dance party in the hallway before going on stage. I joined in. I needed to show my brain through my actions that I was having fun and feeling silly and relaxed. So yeah, if you can, dance and goof around.

2. Power Pose

Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing. Power posing takes movement to the next level. You basically set a timer for two minutes, and stand in a high power position, like with your hands on your hips and your chest open. I did this periodically throughout the day leading up to my talk. I was frankly surprised that I didn’t see other speakers doing this. But I guess we all have our own rituals, and maybe they were power posing in the bathroom or something.

That said, power posing helped me tremendously. It was interesting, I would set a timer for 2 minutes. Then I would stand there, and feel nothing for 1.5 minutes. I would keep thinking, “This is silly, this isn’t doing anything,” but then in that last 30 seconds, I would suddenly start feeling incredible. The hormones take a few minutes to kick in I suppose (this practice supposedly raises testosterone and lowers cortisol). When you try this, be sure to set a timer and do it for the full two minutes.

3. Go Outside

We had a very nice green room set up for us. But I knew that if I was going to make it to my 6pm slot without passing out or falling into a low emotional state, I would need to get outside.

I took breaks to lie in the grass, feel the sun on my face, and jump up and down barefoot.

My friend and mentor, Cheryl Dolan taught me a trick where you bounce on a yoga ball for 15 minutes to some really upbeat music. At the end, you stand up and feel truly grounded. I couldn’t orchestrate the yoga ball thing, but jumping up and down has a similar effect. It gets you out of your head, into your body, and makes you feel incredible. I’m sure a few people thought I was a little weird jumping in the grass, but whatever.

4. Manage Your Inputs

This one is especially important for the introverts. It would have been easy for me to spend the day chatting with my fellow speakers, who were all so interesting. I tried to be friendly, talk with people a little, but also not let too much in or become overwhelmed.

I watched the first few talks from my reserved seat in the auditorium. But the crowd was so massive that I knew I could get easily overwhelmed if I stayed there for the whole first act, so I retreated to the Green Room.

When it comes to “inputs,” food and water count, too. I have a sensitive stomach, so I packed my own food that day and I made it nutrient-dense paleo food like sardines packed in olive oil. I didn’t want to take any chances. I was very careful about drinking plenty of water throughout the day, and keeping my blood sugar in check. No sweets till after the talk.

5. Meditate

One of the most helpful things I’ve learned from meditation is the ability to deal with pestering thoughts and refocus my attention on the present moment. That’s what you’re doing when you meditate: a thought pops up, you notice it and then refocus your attention to your breath or body. I used this skill throughout the day, even when I wasn’t technically meditating. If I noticed my thoughts going some place dark or getting wrapped up in something petty, I would refocus my attention on the present moment. You can do this by focusing on the sensation of your feet against the floor, scanning your body from head to toe, or focusing on your breath.

A lot of these strategies boil down to mindfulness. Being aware of your body, your stress levels, what you need in terms of food, drink, alone time, etc.

6. Revel in the Spotlight

There’s a “mindset hack” that really helped me perform. For people who dislike public speaking, the tendency when you’re up on stage is to want to “get through it.” This attitude makes you rush and worry about what you’re going to say next. It means that you step off the stage saying “phew!” but not remembering much of what happened.

It feels safer to “simply get through it,” because the idea of being absorbing all that is happening to you sounds terrifying. However, if you want to put on a great show, you need to fight this urge.

My new friend, fellow TED presenter, and teenage magician, Wyatt, reminded me of this right before I went on stage:

“Our act was only four minutes long but it felt like it was over in thirty seconds. I wish I had appreciated the spotlight more.”

Thanks for the reminder, Wyatt. This advice was incredibly helpful.

If you want to nail your presentation, you need to change your mindset from a “get through it,” attitude to a “step into the spotlight and enjoy being up there” attitude. You need to HAVE FUN.

It was now or never. I walked onto the stage, stood with my feet firmly on the ground, looked out at the audience, smiled, took a deep breath, and began.

I didn’t rush. I paused to let the crowd laugh and take in my points. I didn’t worry about what was coming next. I was just there with them.

I wouldn’t say that I was completely comfortable on stage, but I was maybe as close as someone who grew up with serious self-esteem and shyness issues could be.

Don’t Let Your Stress Make You Second Guess Yourself

A few years ago, I read a great book called Nerve. In it, Taylor Clark looks at the difference between high stakes performers/athletes who choke under pressure versus those who can perform under stress. It boils down to one thing: the people who choke under pressure get preoccupied by their stress and second guess their training.

The people who can perform under stress, on the other hand, don’t get preoccupied by their stress. Rather, they see it as a necessary annoyance. It’s there, you know it’ll be there, just accept it as an annoyance and do your best to work around it.

This was the attitude that I tried to have throughout the day. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Getting preoccupied with your fear will throw you off, so just let it be there and do your best to take care of yourself.

The TED Talk

Being on stage was, in fact, a TON of fun. Behold…

 

Your Turn

What tips do you have for high pressure performances? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

em_bioEmilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites integrate ALL of their interests into their lives. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is an occasional rock star, a paleo-friendly eater and a wannabe scientist carpenter. Learn more about Emilie here.

43 Comments

  1. Anabel says:

    You sounded and looked very confident, like you’ve been doing this for years. And the interaction with the audience feels great. Well done you! Congrats!

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Anabel. The audience gave me so much energy. They were awesome.

    • Maureen says:

      I loved your talk! It’s so refreshing to hear such honest advice from such direct experience. My tip when speaking is to remember how much we care about our subject, and our audience – I could really, really see how much you care about this topic and your audience :) On your website you talk about finding an ‘overarching theme’ – I always thought of this as one’s Purpose in life, something broad so to speak. And all the projets etc etc are manifestations of that Purpose, and sometimes there will be many! As we mature we are attracted to different projects, but if we are true to our ‘inner voice’ – our core motivation can be the same. What do you think? I am highly sensitive and love helping others who are also very sensitive so I particularly understand your tips around managing input, thank you so much for that.

    • Lauren says:

      Great fun article! I actually got up and did the Wonder Woman pose right after reading that bit. True. Felt silly. Then I started to feel kinda solid ready to make important decisions. then the 2 min alarm went off, which was a ringtone i love, so i started dancing. While dancing I realized how its making more and more sense for me to do pet massage (I am a massage therapist… for now), so I pulled my energywork book off the shelf and (ringtone still going)while lying facedown on my exercise ball to get some blood flow to the legs and hips, open up and begin reading randomly (as if this is the answer to my 18 month long quest to find the work I cant not do!). the alarm stops and I crack up at the irony of what just happened, and came back to this article. oh man.

  2. Thank you for this post Emilie – it’s extremely helpful and so cool to get a little bit of insight into how one would feel on a day like that. I don’t think I’ve ever read a post that is so honest about something many of us aspire to do! Thank you, and thanks for your talk. It was awesome. xx, Kristel

  3. Hey Emilie, first off…enjoyed the Talk immensely! I shared it with the Creatives and witnessed as a chain-reaction of shares took over…and a chain-reaction of ah-ha’s as well! I love your pointers. Performing is one of my passions. But that doesn’t save me from the jitters and from self-doubt. My top tip for overcoming that is spending time visualizing myself in the situation and visualizing how I want to feel. The imagination is a powerful tool!

  4. Nela says:

    Thank you for these tips, there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t even thought about.

    I tried power poses and haven’t noticed any difference, but I see now that I totally dismissed the “2 minutes” bit. Next time I’ll try with a timer!

  5. Megan says:

    I stumbled upon you after feeling a bit of the same way, having to many passions and wanting to know a little about everything.. Thank you for being so transparent with yourself and creating a community for others to feel empowered. I really love how you put yourself out there and trudge forward despite the challenges. I have come to realize there is no job posting that matches my skill set and that I must seek out the life I want.. Most of the people I admire have done just that… It is easy to fall into what we see others do and what is defined as success In our culture. Thank you again for creating this space and doing what you do. I have enjoyed following you.

    • Emilie says:

      “there is no job posting that matches my skill set and that I must seek out the life I want.”

      Well said! And good for you, Megan. :)

  6. Stella says:

    These are so helpful. I have exams at the moment and I have my rowing national champs in July, as well as a music concert that I’m playing in. I get stage fright pretty bad so this couldn’t come at a better time, thank you so much :)

    P.S. The TED talk was fabulous, I loved it!

  7. Venetia Boyd says:

    Great Talk Emilie! Yes, we are wired this way and can’t be unwired. It’s in us. I’m ready to become an Evangelist of the Multi-Passionate Life. I embrace my many God Given Talents. And I love your statement about the ability to morph into whatever I need to be in a given situation. I love being a multipotentialite.

  8. Gloria says:

    You nailed it, Emilie! Here and of course at the talk. I’m part of a Toastmasters club and we do promote all these tips you mention (apart from the meditation side I think…) All that together with practising is the key of success. Well, all that and also one very important fact: TO BE GENUINE when communicating ;-)

  9. Sue Lankers says:

    Emily, you rock. I am so humbled by your courage and gentle determination. I am 55 years old and always inspired by you. Thank you for investing yourself so deeply in us.

  10. Lynn says:

    This is the best information I’ve ever read on dealing with stage fright. I feel like you really get how incapacitating fear can be. A lot of other writers seem to think you’ll be fine if you can just get out there. “Take a few deep breaths,” they say, which for me was like trying to stop a tsunami with an umbrella. I feel like these techniques will make the difference between a trembling voice and forgotten lines to actually being able to enjoy the experience a bit. I’m so excited to try them! Thank you!!!

  11. J'aime says:

    What a valuable post! Thanks, Emilie! I’m totally going to come back to this next time I’m in a stage fright situation.

  12. Chez says:

    I was so impressed with your talk and how comfortable you seemed. I detected a dry mouth which indicated nervousness. This is to be expected and happens to me pretty much anytime I speak up for myself. Gulp!!
    Thank you for sharing your preparation tips. So handy, useful, grounding and re-assuring. If the day ever comes when I will be in the spotlight, I will revert to your tips. It obviously worked for you because you were awesome.

  13. Kate James says:

    Brilliant article Emily and a brilliant talk! You were fantastic – I loved every minute of it. Such a fantastic achievement :)

  14. Jen says:

    Congratulations and well done! Thank you for your words of wisdom, for putting yourself in the spotlight and for sharing yourself!

  15. Excellent talk! I could see by your breathing that you were a bit nervous, but you carried yourself with confidence and made it work anyway. Well structured, well-prepared, well-delivered. Nothing new for your disciples, but an excellent word to get out to the world. Well done!

  16. Kata Monzéger says:

    Having fun while giving a speech? I have never thought about it. I tried power pose before, but in fact, it lasted for 2 seconds instead of 2 minutes, so I should work on it, too. :)

    Great article and speech, thanks!

  17. Danny says:

    The trick I know is to keep your adrenaline level low.

    There are two possible ways, a) do something very dangerous to use all your adrenaline – the body needs 24 h to refill the buffer or b) eat a handful of walnuts 30 minutes before the event.

    I usually do only b) but one can also combine both …
    ;-)

  18. Ria says:

    This is the third time I’m watching/listening to your talk today. I’m so happy to have discovered this post. Public speaking terrifies me, but you just made me feel like I can do it too. Thank you for that, and for opening my eyes to the world of multipotentialites.

  19. Davud says:

    You rocked it… Thanks for the great tips! I recently re-joined Toastmasters – looking forward to getting past my fears to show the world my art. Thanks for your great work!

  20. Kristine says:

    Emilie – stumbling upon your TED talk has completely rocked my world in the last 48 hours on many, many levels. My head is spinning.. but strictly keeping to this post, I’m a recovering glossophobe (morbid fear of public speaking) who’s spent years trying everything to overcome this fear. Like, e v e r y t h i n g. I’m both repulsed and fascinated by my phobia, but every technique (including meds) only helped me to endure presentations when avoidance didn’t work. The real breakthrough came when my mindset was forcibly switched to embracing the opportunity to present. A few years ago I was literally bursting with an idea that I desperately wanted to communicate (one that only my multipotentialite self was getting!)and was forced to embrace presentations as the most effective way to get stakeholders to buy in. It was truly an epiphany to regard a presentation as my ally to help others see what I was seeing, and it has fundamentally resolved my life-long phobia.
    In practical terms, physically burning off adrenaline before a presentation goes really far, and also a preemptive swish of bland oil (like avocado)to avoid sticky, smackin’ dry mouth when I anticipate stressful speaking.
    Deepest gratitude for perfectly articulating the plight of us multipotentialites, for building this place where the tribe can gather, and for sharing your path with us!
    Namaste

  21. Emilie,

    thank you so much fro your post! I am in training to be a sub for the flute chair for the broadway production of Lion King. Similar to how you prepared for your Ted talk, I am also practicing every day, and soon will know the show like the back of my hand. My biggest fear is, of course, fear: the first time I play the show in the theater! I will use your suggestions and am already feeling better about ‘the first show’ now that I’ve stumbled across your blog and Ted talk. I am also a multipotentialite, (flutist, pianist, composer, multi-linguist, traveler, visual artist, educator) who just happens to be focusing on one thing for a moment!

    thanks again,

    Dominique

    • Emilie says:

      Dominique,

      Can I just say how incredibly cool it is that you’re playing flute in the Lion King? I literally read your comment and was like “WHAT?!” Heh. I meet such interesting people through this site. :)

      And thanks for the kind words!

  22. Hi Emilie!

    Thank you for the inspiration. I’m presenting at TEDxEmory in 2 weeks and I’m employing a couple of your tactics. I was also in a touring band, made specialty cakes, now I run my dream project: making impossibly small street art. Talking about the thing I know best seems easy… but scary! Thanks for the advice. Holler if you’re ever in ATL!

    here’s the ted link:
    http://tedxemory.org/#Speakers

    my project: http://www.tinydoorsatl.com

  23. Deepika says:

    I had seen your talk once before and I would say you literally SAVED me that day! With each passing word of your speech, my smile was broader and the voice inside me was “This is me! This is me!” And you saved me from drowning.

    It was so relieving to know that I am not alone and most importantly THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. The fight I have been fighting for so long – to accept and embrace myself as I am – will not end so soon but your talk and website has been so much help and I am definitely happier.

    A BIG thank you, love and hugs

  24. Flor says:

    Hi Emilie!

    First of all sorry for my English, I’m still learning and is a little bad haha.
    Thank you sooo much for this incredible talk, very inspiring and motivating.

    In my case I always loved Fashion, since age 13 I decided I wanted to be a designer and that’s what I studied. Over time I became interested in other aspects of fashion, as fashion journalism, marketing or photograph. Now I work in a shoe brand as a Social Media Manager and I love it.

    But today, I have 24 years old and I’ve noticed that I also love to write fantasy, I don’t know if I’m good at writing but everything is practical and creativity.

    I also love music. I love Symphonic Metal and Classical music and other of my goals is to study violin, in fact I have one. I will start in 2017 :)

    I am currently studying English. But I have thought about doing a course in Graphic Design and in the future I would like to study something related to the Cinema.

    As you can read I have many interests and only one is aware of these things when someone is equal to one and says so. It is wonderful.

    I hope you understand what I wrote! XD
    Kisses from Argentina.
    Flor.