Brace Yourself: An emergency kit for pre-talk terror

By Guest Author | speaking | January 22, 2018

This column of Gleb Maltsev was first published in CoFounder No 10 in November 2017.


Barack Obama, probably the greatest speaker of our time, listened to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to prepare for one of his biggest speeches.

Fifty-three seconds into Lose Yourself, Eminem spits a visceral set of rhymes on what it’s like to lose it on stage. To put it mildly, these two men could not be more different. One rapped his way up from a working-class Detroit neighbourhood, the other an Ivy League lawyer who had to learn how to speak like a preacher rather than an academic. As for the rest, most of us know their respective stories.

Yet it seems both had experienced sweaty palms, trembling knees, shaking hands, nausea, choking and forgetting what to say next – all likely symptoms of their adrenal glands pumping their systems full of epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenaline, which peaks in about 3 minutes. The two men had apparently experienced stage fright early in their careers and learned to push beyond it. One because he believed that anyone could do so, the other because living in trailer parks was not an option.

Whatever your reasons for getting on stage to speak, I’d like to give you a ‘cheat sheet’ to get you through some pre-talk jitters and survive those first 3 minutes of adrenaline assault. Why? Because a long time ago I choked, I cried, and as a result, I failed to recite Pushkin to my class at school. So here is a utilitarian stage fright first-aid kit, to be used to conquer those moments when our bodies and minds might betray us in the face of an audience.

Your body is a cage. So you may as well master it. Sleep. No, I’m not talking about a power nap. I mean the full 8 hours. Drink water. No coffee, no alcohol, no cigars –  the stuff tightens your vocal cords. Nicht gut. Diaphragmatic breathing. Try it  – the worst that might happen is you end up sounding like Darth Vader. Move. A run or a walk in the morning and stretching 15 minutes before a talk. Do a downward-facing dog or whatever – as long as it is not in the middle of the conference hall.

Make a personal playlist. If you’re anxious, ambient and piano are good options. If you’re in need of some fire up your derrière, tracks with an ‘explicit’ label on them tend to work very well. Mine is called ‘Speak’, and yes, it has plenty of Eminem on it.

Work the crowd beforehand. Getting to know the people in your audience will tell your amygdala that you’re on friendly terms with some of them and they won’t throw stones at you. That will come in handy when you need to find friendly faces to make eye contact with in the audience.

The first and last 15 seconds are the most important. Have them memorised. Verbatim. Enunciate names. Yours and that of the company. Pause. Breathe. Look at the people. Keep going.

Get to know the stage. Get a grip on the mic and let it rip. Check the batteries on your equipment. Get intimate with the clicker. Try switching it on and off. Then do it again. Walk through your slides (yes, all of them). Try saying something nonsensical to the very back of the room to test the acoustics. It could be a childhood favourite candy brand, the name of your pet, or that favourite boy-band you used to adore that you are ashamed of now. Loud and proud.

“And this, too, shall pass away.” This phrase helped Abraham Lincoln in one of his speeches. It might help you too. Pride, fear and anxiety are temporary.