Thursday, November 24, 2016

The speaker coach's last-minute backstage toolkit for TED talks or your talk

I'll be backstage coaching speakers next week at TEDMED, the medical and science TED conference, for my sixth year. Some of our speakers are first timers on a big stage; others, seasoned pros. But good old fight-or-flight syndrome can affect all of them--along with many other last-minute issues.

They all go on to rock the TEDMED stage, and you can rock yours, whether you're doing last-minute prep for a TED talk or just your next talk...if you remember these bits of wisdom that backstage coaches keep in their toolkits for those final moments before the speakers take the stage:
  1. Your body has a mind of its own: Sadly, it won't be your higher-order prefrontal brain controlling things. That's the part of your brain you need to put words together and emit them from your mouth. Instead, your caveman or limbic brain will be kicking in just about now, and with it, loads of awful physical symptoms, from dry mouth to shaking hands and tight breathing. If you think "Hey, that's my caveman brain kicking in and I really need my public-speaking brain right now," your brain will come back to its senses--really, it's that simple. So don't give in to the caveman brain's signals.
  2. Don't spend those last moments practicing: Ideally, you've already practiced enough. Take a short walk, get some alone moments if you are introverted and need to build energy, or shut your eyes and meditate, even for a few minutes of in-breaths and out-breaths. Last-minute practice doesn't necessarily aid the end result, and may make you more nervous.
  3. Smiling is the best fix-it tool: A smile is the speaker's Swiss Army knife, loaded with aid for any occasion. Smiling before and during your talk will tell your brain to start pumping nerve-calming chemicals and feel-good chemicals, no other action needed. Smiling looks good to an audience, and it counteracts the tendency of most mouths to look flatlined or downturned (aka, sad-looking). You and we will feel better. 
  4. Get out there, find your mark, and wait: We ask our speakers to find the place they wish to stand, face the audience, smile...and wait. Wait for the audience to stop applauding. Wait three more beats, just to be sure. Then start. That lets you gather your courage, get used to the stage, and--critically for talks that are being recorded on video--gives us a prayer of capturing your carefully crafted opening lines without applause cutting them off and making them unintelligible. Your nerves may be telling you to get going and get it over with, but you will just ruin the start if you listen to them.
  5. Remember: What will you look like when you're done? I love to ask this question of our TEDMED speakers, and it never fails to produce glorious, sparkling, I-just-won-the-lottery smiles. That's when I say, "Now *that's* the smile I want to see on your face onstage. Don't save it for the end." Go and do likewise. A simple reminder to yourself before you go onstage will do the trick.
(TEDMED photo)