Investor and bestselling author, Tim Ferriss, traces his breakthrough success to a presentation at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2007. The presentation was the tipping point for his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. It went on to become one of the most successful self-help books of the decade.

In a recent episode of his popular podcast, Ferriss was speaking with author Susan Cain when the conversation turned to the topic of managing fear, specifically a fear of public speaking. Ferriss revealed the seemingly bizarre--but highly effective--strategies he used to prepare for the SXSW presentation and a TED Talk years later. 

Captivating the Chihuahuas 

"I was incredibly nervous," Ferriss said about his SXSW presentation. He was too nervous to practice in front of people. At the time, he was staying in the extra bedroom of his friend's house in Austin where the annual conference is held. Three Chihuahua dogs shared the house. When Ferriss went into the garage to practice because he didn't want to be within earshot of his friends, the dogs followed him.

Ferriss felt reasonably confident about the content of his presentation, but he was uncomfortable about the performance. His solution was to deliver the talk over and over "until I could get the dogs to sit and stare at me--to hold their attention."

Ferriss's unusual rehearsal strategy might have been unintended, but it was psychologically brilliant.

Psychologists say the secret to quelling anxiety is to practice over and over. Better yet, practice over and over under mild pressure. For example, before a mission-critical presentation, gather a few friends to watch your dress rehearsal. Simulating even low levels of stress helps to keep your cool when the pressure is on for real.

The Double Espresso Rehearsal Strategy

A decade after Ferriss' presentation at SXSW, he was invited to give a TED Talk at the 2017 conference. Despite giving hundreds of presentations in the preceding ten years, Ferriss was still a bundle of nerves before his TED appearance.

"I've been nervous about public speaking for so long. It doesn't really go away. For me, I still have those nerves," Ferriss admitted.

Before the TED Talk, Ferris practicing delivering his talk over and over to small groups of strangers. He asked them for feedback and incorporated their suggestions in the next rehearsal. He also did something unusual, again. 

Ferris--who studies sports and extreme athletes--knew his heartbeat would be "thirty beats per minute higher than normal" on the TED stage. "It wasn't just important for me to practice the content, but to practice under the physiological stress that I would probably experience when trying to deliver he content," he said.

Ferriss did pushups and drank two double espressos before the practice presentations. Once the energy kicked in, he would deliver the presentation "to see if I could handle the stimulation."

The strategy worked. Ferriss' TED Talk has been viewed more than 5 million times.

It's unusual for ultra-successful people to be nervous about speaking in public. Warren Buffett, Barbara Corcoran and Richard Branson have all had to deal with it. The secret is not to conquer it, but to manage the butterflies. And you manage the butterflies by practicing under a little pressure. 

Figure out what kind of pressure works for you. You might want to start with a canine audience. It worked out well for Tim Ferriss. 

Published on: Feb 4, 2019