In his book, Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, 2017), author Daniel McGinn discusses how successful people use psychological research to excel in high-pressure situations. In this edited excerpt, he explains why one public speaker's trick of reciting his bio at the beginning of every presentation actually works.
If you attend a conference where Jonathan Jenkins is speaking, you'll notice how calm and confident he appears. It looks like he's given this talk hundreds of times, even though today's topic is specific to this particular event. The second thing you may notice about five minutes into his talk, is how the speech makes an abrupt pivot.
Jenkins's introductory remarks are autobiographical. He talks about how, growing up in Texas, he wanted to be a cowboy. (He shows a slide of himself dressed like the Lone Ranger.) As a child, he also read a book about China over and over. That led him to move to China after college, where he launched his first startup. That startup morphed into his current job, as CEO of WithMe, a Las Vegas-based company that helps brands open short-term, experiential retail spaces.
Only after he's related his personal story does he segue--sometimes smoothly, sometimes a little jarringly--into the specific message of that day's particular speech.
These presentations are crucial to Jenkins's professional life. He's pitched to dozens of venture capitalists, successfully raising millions of dollars. He frequently gives conference keynotes. On average, Jenkins gives one speech a week. He considers anything fewer than 100 people a "small group," and doesn't consider it a "big speech" unless the audience is more than a thousand.
Jenkins is extremely busy, with little time to write speeches or rehearse. So he's developed a unique technique: For nearly every talk he gives, he uses this standard autobiographical introduction, a well-honed, memorized set of remarks he's used hundreds of times. As a result, Jenkins doesn't have to think about what he's saying during the first few moments of a speech. Like a trucker changing lanes or a nurse who's taking a temperature, he's can go on autopilot, speaking without a hint of nerves before he segues into the custom-tailored portion of the speech. By that point, he's won over the crowd.
"I start with my story," Jenkins says. "I figure if I got invited to speak at an event, there's something in my background or past that prepared me to be there talking, so the first part of the speech is always trying to make a personal connection with the audience."
To be sure, there is nothing revolutionary about memorizing a speech. Nor is Jenkins' automated opening the only thing that makes him a confident speaker. His grandfather was a Southern preacher, and from a young age, Jenkins regularly took turns speaking to the congregation. By the time he left for college, he was completely comfortable being at a podium with hundreds of eyes staring at him.
Still, his method of constructing every speech around the same opening is a clever hack. He's minimized his stress by relying on autopilot--and in doing so, he's offered a lesson for anyone pitching their ideas to investors, executing a make-or-break sales presentation, or performing the other nervous-making duties that are part of entrepreneurial life.
The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman divides human cognition into System 1 and System 2. "System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control," Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow. "System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it."
For most people, making a high-stakes presentation is a System 2 mental activity. But grafting something that's automatic onto the front end of every presentation, Jenkins has effectively turned the opening into a System 1 task.
Aside from making the task easier, shifting into autopilot reduces the risk of overthinking an activity, which can lead to choking.
Sian Beilock, a researcher at the University of Chicago, has spent twenty years studying how, when, and why people choke. Some believe that distraction is a primary culprit: Instead of applying their attention to the task at hand, people see their concentration sapped away by so-called task-irrelevant cues. Others believe the real problem is explicit monitoring: You become so keenly aware and over-focused on what you're doing that you screw it up. The phrase "self-conscious" is aptly descriptive: You become too conscious of yourself.
Beilock has been particularly fascinated by how these two forces play out in "proceduralized" activities that people don't think about, and in activities that put demands on people's working memory. Someone who plays a ton of golf has likely proceduralized putting. They can do it on autopilot. For this person, overthinking a putt is bad. Complicated math, on the other hand, requires one's working memory, so overthinking is good and autopilot would be problematic.
As Beilock writes in her 2010 book Choke: "The key is to have brainpower at your disposal, but to be able to 'turn it off' in situations where it may prove disadvantageous." Choking, she writes, is usually the result of people "paying too much attention to what they are doing or not devoting enough brainpower to the task."
As Beilock's research makes clear, an important step when getting psyched up before a vital performance is to decide whether this is the kind of task you should be thinking about, or whether you should turn your brain off and rely on autopilot. To put it in Kahneman's language, should this activity utilize System 1 or System 2?
Jonathan Jenkins has found a way to turn a stressful activity that's prone to overthinking into a rote, turn-your-brain-off moment. It's a technique worth remembering as you approach the high-stakes events in your career.