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Speaking: the Nerves & the Art

January 13 2014 – 10:23pm

“That was kind of scary, how you were able to do that.”

George only noticed because he was one of the fellow speakers – still coming down from the inevitable nerves of giving a talk – but if you’ve watched my TEDx Talk, you probably didn’t notice at all.

It’s over 17 minutes long, but there are no slides or teleprompter to help me remember a thing. I still have a long way to go before my skills catch up with my taste, but I managed to deliver the talk almost exactly as I had intended.

There are two main components to successful public speaking: the nerves component, and the art component. As frightened as many people are of standing up in front of a group of people and giving a speech, most of us will eventually find ourselves in a situation where we have to do it.

Still, there is a desire to do it. Giving an effective presentation is a powerful way to share your knowledge and ideas. Thankfully, we can learn to manage our nerves and develop our art.

The nerves component

For many people, the nerves component feels nearly insurmountable. It could be that they are shy, they lack the confidence, or they have impossibly high expectations.

Then there are the things that are out of our control: the faulty projector, the audience member’s Jay-Z ringtone, the lighting in the room, the acoustics, the mood of the audience, or the fact that you had to skip breakfast because you missed your alarm. All of these things are what come together to make speaking so horrifying for some people: it’s a lack of control, the lack of predictability, the lack of knowing how the hell to convey your thoughts through all of this madness and plant them into the brains of your audience members.

I certainly wasn’t born being able to do this. Just ask my mother, who recently sent me this note:

…when I read about you loving to speak, I am reminded of the little boy on the stage in grade school who looked so panic-stricken that I feared he may pass out. But, you didn’t, and just kept on doing those things that scare you, until they didn’t any more!

Thankfully, I don’t feel like passing out when I’m on stage anymore. In fact, I’ve spoken dozens of times on 3 continents, in places as far away from home as Chile and Singapore. I’ve talked to a room of 800 people at SXSW, and an audience of 50,000 people online, streaming from Mexico City. It’s still not a relaxing Sunday picnic in the park, but I overall find it enjoyable nonetheless.

Whenever I’m scared of something, I ask myself what it is I have to gain from facing that fear. I would probably be scared to jump out of a plane, but I don’t think I would gain much out of it. On the list of fears that you can grow from by facing, public speaking is way high on the list – right behind striking up a conversation with that cute someone in the coffee shop. It can literally change your life, but with almost no tangible consequences for failing.

Start so small you can’t fail

A key to gaining confidence, besides giving yourself permission to suck is to actually put yourself in a situation where it’s nearly impossible to fail. There are many opportunities to either do a talk that is so short that you can’t fail, or where you can be in a situation where failure is part of the fun.

Improv classes are an invaluable experience for anyone – no matter what you do. I took classes at Second City, the famous comedy theater in Chicago that has produced the likes of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Not only do you start off “performing” in a small class in structured, tiny chunks, you also find that there isn’t really a wrong way – and that if something doesn’t go as planned, you aren’t going to disintegrate into a million tiny bits.

Besides classes like that, there are lots of opportunities to talk in front of people. I did a talk at BarCamp 5 years ago that was the very seed that eventually grew into my book. I did a more polished talk at an Ignite event as well – it’s only 5 minutes long, so getting used to memorizing and saying things was much easier to handle.

Rehearse. Seriously.

The most surprising thing that people neglect to do when preparing for a speech is rehearsing – actually standing up and saying. the. words. that you’re going to say. Without rehearsal, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re guaranteed to experience strong feelings of anxiety because you know deep down that you’re not prepared.

Besides, words sound much different when spoken than when written. Some words and combinations of words are just hard to say, or hard to understand when spoken. For example, in my TEDx talk, I say “…if we go back 500 years…” instead of “…if we rewind 500 years….” “If we rewind” is just too much of a tongue twister.

To put it simply: If you haven’t rehearsed your speech, then you haven’t finished writing it.

Rehearse your talk. Say the words out loud. Program them into your basal ganglia. Until you get really good at remembering what you want to say, try saying certain passages of your talk extremely slowly. and. ex-ag-ger-at-ed. This will intensify the muscle memory and you won’t believe how much easier you can recite the words, especially after a nap or a good night’s sleep.

Let me be clear about this, because as simple as it sounds, it can be hard to get into your brain. Yes, I mean actually standing in a room by yourself and saying the words out loud. It sounds and feels weird at first, but it’s very important.

Your talk isn’t the only thing that needs practicing. Prepare for unexpected as well. What happens if the slides stop working or an audience member shouts something in the middle of your speech? You can’t predict everything, but planning even for a few things can give you a boost in confidence that you’ll be ready for anything.

Master your nerves

When you get up in front of people, you are going to get amped up. Your heart will race, your breath will get shallow, and you will start to sweat. Heck, I’m still screwed if I have to hold a microphone. Even if I don’t feel nervous, that microphone will probably be shaking visibly. The experiences of thousands of your ancestors are telling you that this is a scary situation.

If you’re someone who gets nervous when public speaking, those nerves may never completely go away; but you can learn to harness them into improving your performance. Mastery doesn’t mean abolition. It means control in the face of a challenge.

Think of it like doing push-ups. When you’re out of shape, your arms shake a little bit and you can’t do very many. But, if you keep doing them every day, you’ll find that you magically shake less and less and you can do more and more. You can feel those tiny muscle fibers that used to shake actually propelling your body up off of the floor more smoothly and confidently than ever before.

So many things in life are just like doing push-ups, and public speaking is definitely one of them. The best way to really get control over those tiny little nerves is by meditating. Meditation helps you bring awareness to every little thing going on in your body, to the point that you can have control over your own physiological reactions. The deep breathing associated with meditation lowers your heart rate, which in turn, lowers feelings of anxiety. With enough practice, you’ll be able to calm your nerves and lower your heart rate just by taking a few controlled breaths.

What you put into your body will make a big difference in being able to control your nerves, as well. Some people employ caffeine to give them a jolt, but that can make your already raised heart rate increase even more. Others take a shot of alcohol, but too much and your talk is going downhill in a hurry.

I don’t drink caffeine so that’s a big offender that’s easy for me to avoid, but If I have a big talk coming up, I’ll be sure to enjoy some calming Chamomile tea before bed for a few days before the talk. If you must do caffeine, you may want to consider supplementing with L-Theanine, which is an amino acid that synergizes with caffeine to make you alert without being jittery. Alternatively, try a lower dose caffeine drink such as tea or a “half-caf” coffee drink. (I’m not a doctor, so be sure to check with yours before using supplements.)

Regular exercise has also been proven to lower anxiety. Going for a quick walk or practicing yoga also does wonders for the creative process when preparing for a speech.

The art component

A few lucky people are born without the fear of public speaking. Others have already mastered their nerves. But being an effective speaker certainly doesn’t stop there. Speaking is its own art form that needs to be appreciated as such.

Speaking isn’t writing

Consider the audience’s point of view: There’s something distinctly different about listening to and watching a person speak than sitting and reading the written word. You can’t “scan” or “skim over” a speech like you can an article. You can’t re-read a speech like you can an article.

With a speech, what they get are your body and face and movements, the words you say, the way you say them, and whatever visuals you’re providing – all in real time. All of these things are interpreted as they happen, and the only reviewing the audience can really do is what you burn into their memory.

This sounds simple, but to understand this is to understand what is unique about the medium of speech. The thoughts that are conveyed in a speech go through many layers of abstraction:


To make things even more complicated, you can’t really experience your own speech the way you can experience your own writing. Sure you can (and you should) rehearse your speech out loud, but you can’t sit in the audience and watch yourself. When you write something, you can just read it and imagine being one of your audience members.

Speaking isn’t a slide deck

Whatever speaking gig you sign up for, they’re going to naturally assume that you have slides. People love to do talks with slides. It helps you remember what you’re supposed to be talking about, and it gives you something to do and look at while you’re talking.

The killer is that it gives you something to obsess over that’s far more tangible than the talk itself. It’s much easier to fiddle around with the typeface on your slides than it is to think about if your talk opens up in a compelling way, or if you have the right stories and metaphors to convey your points.

Sometimes slides are really useful. If you’re really illustrating something that must be seen to be understood, of course, they’re invaluable. But usually, slides aren’t really adding anything to a talk, but rather, taking things away. They dominate the consciousness of the audience and distract them from your body, your movements, your voice – from the words you’re saying. To make matters worse, they’re usually projected at several times your own size.

For my TEDx talk, for example, I considered using slides. The way it opens, I could easily get a few laughs by showing Comic Sans being used in strange places a couple of times. But I realized that I didn’t even need the images to get my point across. People already knew what Comic Sans was, and they know damn well that it’s not appropriate for funeral programs.

So, I took the slides out. This had the added benefit of proving my point that design topics are now deeply embedded in the contemporary brain.

Great artists steal

If you want to be a great painter, look at – and copy – the work of great painters. If you want to be a great public speaker, watch – and copy – the work of great speakers. Don’t be afraid to steal ideas (on an abstract level, not direct plagiarism, of course) from speakers whom you admire.

I’ll readily admit that a couple of speakers that I’ve “ripped off” are Malcom Gladwell and Seth Godin. More specifically, in preparation for my TEDx talk, I studied Mr. Gladwell’s talk on the Norden bombsight and Seth Godin’s talk on education. It was Mr. Godin’s talk that inspired me to use props – a large book and an iPhone – instead of slides.

Besides, imitation won’t turn you into a copycat. If I try to speak more like Gladwell or Godin, it will still come across as David Kadavy. After all, I’m not an impressionist. My tastes are part of who I am as a creative person. They inform my art.

Another great thing about watching great speakers really closely is that it can help you realize that they are imperfect, despite giving amazing talks – which makes emulating them less intimidating. For example, Mr. Gladwell loses his place and has to backtrack in his talk (which doesn’t detract from how good it is). You realize mistakes are okay.

Quick public speaking tips

Now that you’ve heard my more abstract explanations of speaking. Here’s a few quick-and-dirty tips:

So, if you know deep down that you’d like to be better at speaking, I encourage you to find some low-pressure speaking opportunities on which to try out some of these tips.

Speaking: the Nerves & the Art:

— ? David Kadavy (@kadavy) January 14, 2014

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