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