My first memory of stage fright was back in 5th grade at Harris Hill Elementary. My class was studying Australia, and the capstone project was a full school assembly, which served to showcase our knowledge of everything, from boomerangs to koalas.
And of course, what’s an assembly without a little music? We decided on The Little River Band’s song “Reminiscing.” Hey, nothing says Australia like the 70s pop rock of The Little River Band. And this is going to sound a little lame. I knew every word of that song.
So I was “volunteered” to lead our little band’s rendition. Our job was to lip sync the song in front of the whole school.
At first, I thought it was pretty cool. But the more I thought about being in the spotlight the more nauseous I felt.
What if I screw up? I will be the laughing stock of the school for eternity.
Yes, our inner critics start tearing away at our confidence at an early age.
On the morning of the assembly, I wimped out. I feigned an illness, my mom bought it, and I stayed home from school that day. At first, I was relieved that I avoided the stage, but eventually, my guilt caught up with me for letting my band mates and teacher down.
My stage nervousness stayed with me through high school. Every time I had to present to the class, my Irish skin tone turned fire engine red.
Eventually, I became more comfortable being on stage. However, during my career I felt that nervous little 5th grader resurface from time to time.
I’m sharing my 5th-grade stage-fright story with you as the start of my TED X journey.
To be transparent, I’m a self-professed TED geek. I love the concept of spreading new ideas through short, powerful talks. To me, TED is like Yankee Stadium and the likes of Seth, Amy, and Brene´ are legends like Ruth, DiMaggio, and Jeter.
That’s why it was such a great surprise when I was asked to present a TED X last December.
Since my talk, many people have asked me what it was like to be on a TED X stage and what I learned from the experience. First, it was awesome. I met some wonderful people. And I’ve come up with five tips that may help you make your next presentation—TED or otherwise—better.
(I share these tips with one small caveat: I’m not Tony Robbins)
What is your Idea Worth Spreading?
This question is foundational to every TED talk. And it should be for every presentation you deliver. Your idea is the red thread that ties your story together. It’s the takeaway message. If you are like me, you have sat through too many fuzzy corporate PowerPoint presentations. Don’t be that presenter, instead, ensure that your idea worth spreading is memorable and compelling.
Practice, Practice, Practice, But Not Too Much
Most people spend 80 percent of their time “working on” their presentation. In corporate speak, “working on” means building their PowerPoint slides. That leaves you with only the 11th hour to practice your delivery. Believe me, I’ve been guilty of this as well. I feel you. But, if you want to level-up your presentations, flip those percentages.
That is, spend 20 percent of your time building your presentation and 80 percent practicing it. It took a couple of drafts to get my 12-minute TED X talk to fit TED’s format. Then, I had to memorize it.
So, I practiced in my office, on my bike, and even standing on one leg watching Morning Joe with the T.V. volume cranked-up. Yes, that last one is true.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you don’t have time to practice your delivery. We both know you spend too much time tweaking your slides. If you want to get better at spreading your idea, spend more time practicing the delivery of it.
But don’t practice too much; nobody likes to listen to a robot. Well, unless it is Alexa.
Nowadays, except for times when I’m energetically distracted or have not practiced, I’m able to shed my stage fright nerves. But that’s not to say I don’t still feel the rush of adrenaline. I imagine most people feel the butterflies of excitement before their presentations. For me, the key to controlling those butterflies is breathing. It helps me slow down and enhances my presentation agility. I recommend that you try meditation through calm.com or centering your breath before your next presentation. I’m confident it will make a difference.
When I first told my friends I was delivering a TED X, they encouraged me to watch their favorite speakers and talks. I decided not to take their advice. I wanted to avoid the feeling that I had to match my style with one of the great TED icons. I knew in my gut that for me to be successful, I had to commit to being myself. So I took a TED holiday, which was a hard thing to do for a TED geek.
Commit to being yourself. Understand what makes you, you. Then work your secret sauce. Don’t try to be someone else. Hey, Oscar Wilde put it best when he said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken anyway.”
Now my TED moratorium wasn’t 100 percent. I did skim the book TED Talks, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson, the head of TED. I especially remember the passage Monica Lewinsky shared:
If you are going to be standing on a stage, addressing an audience, it means, someone, somewhere decided you had something of import to impart to others. I spent time articulating to myself how I hoped my speech might help others who were suffering. I clung to the meaning and purpose of my speech as a life raft.
Admittedly, as I approached my talk, there were times when I let the aura of TED get into my head. In those moments, I paused, remembered Monica’s advice, shifted my perspective, and focused on this mantra: This matters. Make your talk about the one person who needs your idea worth spreading. This is about them-not TED. This matters.
Here’s my advice, when you’re in the spotlight, preparing to deliver your next presentation, be aware of your perspective. Your perspective matters and it will help others see what you see. It will change lives because, after all, we go where our eyes go.
Break a leg and have fun storming the castle.