Monday, November 7, 2011

Last-minute prep: "What can I do if I have just 5 minutes before a speech?"

Tell people at a conference you're a speaking coach, and you'll get all sorts of reactions and questions. But recently, at the TEDMED conference, many people during the breaks asked me this difficult question:  "How would you coach me if I had just five minutes before a speech?"

That would be a high-pressure question--but unlike many speakers, I don't fear time limits. If you really had just five minutes before you were about to speak, you'd want to get down to basics. Your speech or slides are prepared, you know your content, you've anticipated questions. So the last-minute prep belongs to the intangibles: How do you feel? How do you look? Are you confident? Here are a few quick ways to use your precious five minutes before you speak:
  • Breathe deeply:  Excuse yourself to the restroom or a nearby stairwell or just stand backstage and take 10 deep, slow breaths. By doing so, you'll help your body release chemicals that will help calm you, and that will get you physically relaxed.
  • Smile: A smile is the fastest fix of all. Smiling helps relax your face and also releases the chemicals that relax your body--and smiling helps counteract the natural slight downward turn of most mouths, making sure you don't look sad or serious when you don't want to do so. And smiling makes you look confident and welcoming, an easy way to connect with your audience.
  • Stretch or shake: To relax and rev up your body, you may need to stretch (again, find that handy stairwell) so you feel limber and alert; stretching also can help you counteract the physical fatigue that comes with sitting, if you've been sitting and waiting to speak. Easy stretches include stretching your arms out to the sides and up to the sky; touching your toes; or loosening your neck by "drawing" circles with your nose in the air.  Are you shaking with nervousness? Try shaking out your shakes, advises Glasgow speaking coach Cordelia "Dilly" Ditton in this useful video. It seems counterintuitive, but will counteract those trembles. 
That'll use up your five minutes. Remember, you can plan ahead to allow yourself just this kind of right-before-speaking prep time, next time you speak.

Related post: The sushi of speaking: Seven bite-sized ideas to get you speech-ready

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