The best speakers know their material cold, because they know that when they deliver a speech, make a presentation, or simply discuss an important topic during a key meeting, content is everything.
Preparation—the non-content kind—can be just as important.
In 5 Unusual Ways to Become a Better Speaker I shared tips to improve content and delivery. If you know your material and still feel nervous, here are a few simple ways to be at your best:
1. Fuel your mental engine. Dopamine and epinephrine, two chemicals found in the brain, help regulate mental alertness. Both come from tyrosine, an amino acid found in proteins. So feel free to have pasta or salad, but make sure to include some type of protein in the meal you eat before you need to be at your best. And don’t wait until the last minute. When you’re really nervous the last thing you may want to do is eat.
2. Burn off a little cortisol. Cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands when you’re anxious or stressed. (Cortisol is one of the triggers of the instinctive fight-or-flight reaction.) High levels of cortisol heighten your emotions and limit creativity and the ability to process complex information; when you’re buzzed on cortisol it’s almost impossible to read the room. The easiest way to burn off cortisol is to exercise: Work out before you leave for work, take a walk at lunch, or hit the gym before a speaking engagement. (If you’ve ever felt more grounded after slogging through a solid workout, now you know why.)
3. Create two contingency plans. If you’re like me, the “what if?” stuff is your biggest worry: What if your PowerPoint presentation fails, what if your boss constantly interrupts, what if your opening falls flat, etc. Pick two of your biggest fears and create contingency plans. What will you do if the projector fails? What will you do if no one agrees with your idea? What will you do if the meeting runs long and you only have two minutes to speak? The effort won’t be wasted because the more you think through different scenarios, the better you will think on your feet if something truly unexpected occurs.
4. Establish a pattern. Superstitions are often just a vain attempt to control something we’re afraid of. (Lucky socks don’t make an athlete perform better.) Instead of creating a superstition, create a pattern that helps center you emotionally. Walk the room ahead of time to check sight lines. Check microphone levels. Run through your presentation at the site to ensure it’s ready to go. Always have a bottle of water at the podium. Pick things you will do, things that are actually beneficial and not just superstitions, and do them every time. You’ll find comfort in the familiar—and confidence, too.
5. Set a backup goal. Say you’re speaking to a civic group on behalf of a charity, and your goal is to generate significant donations, and halfway through you realize your presentation is falling flat. What happens? The average speaker falls apart a little, too, and either tries too hard or all but gives up. If your primary goal is to get approval for a new project and you can tell you won’t succeed, shift to planting the seeds for another attempt down the road. If you see you won’t get what you really want, what can you try to accomplish? Set a backup goal ahead of time and be ready to transition; when the room doesn’t go your way you can stay positive, stay focused, and stay on top of your speaking game.
Sound like too much effort? When the end result truly matters, everything is worth doing.