Last-minute tactics for delivering a sterling presentation

Even veteran speakers can fall prey to pre-show jitters. Try these techniques—from a TED coach—to ease your mind and get the audience on your side before you even open your mouth.

I’m coaching speakers for TEDMED, the medical and science TED conference, for my sixth year.

Some are first-timers on a big stage; others are seasoned pros. The 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 taking 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 in order 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-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 rehearsed enough. Go for a short walk, take some alone moments (especially if you are introverted and need to build energy), or shut your eyes and meditate, even for a few minutes of focused inhaling and exhaling. Last-minute practice doesn’t necessarily enhance the end result, and it could make you more nervous.

3. Smiling is the best fix-it tool.

A smile is the speaker’s Swiss army knife, loaded with a remedy for any occasion. Smiling before and during your talk will tell your brain to start pumping nerve-calming, feel-good chemicals, with no other action needed. Smiling looks good to an audience, and it counteracts the tendency of most mouths to look flatlined or downturned. You and your audience 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 and get used to the stage, and-especially for talks that are being recorded on video-it 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 ruin the opening if you listen to them.

5. Remember: What will you look like when you’re done?

I love to ask that 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.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 150 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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