How to pump yourself up before a presentation (or calm yourself down)

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

A silhouette of a person in a yoga pose with lotus flowers in the background

Public speaking affects people in different ways. Some people get jittery and anxious before they talk; they need to spend time calming themselves down before they go onstage.

Other people want to make sure they have extra energy when they’re in front of an audience. These people need to spend time amping themselves up before a talk — doing whatever helps them feel invigorated.

My pre-talk ritual has always been to be still; I would consider this a spiritual ritual. I’ll typically find a dark spot backstage to center myself, exhale calmly, and create quiet space in my head. Meanwhile, I interviewed over 40 professional speakers some of who have a more amp-it-up ritual, like doing power poses or rocking out to heavy metal bands.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try out some of these different, energizing pre-talk rituals before my last big keynote. I tried doing exertion rituals: a couple quick jumps, a few power poses, and a handful of big stretches.

Unfortunately, what I learned was that since I’m already a pretty amped up person, these routines didn’t work for me. In fact, my energy was so over-the-top that I couldn’t catch my breath through the entire talk, and afterwards, people told me I sounded like I couldn’t breathe because I chuffed into the microphone. One client even called the speaker’s bureau to ask if I was sick, because of how I came across.

I determined that my tried and true routine still works best for me and the right thing to do to get ready for a talk is to tap into what makes you the most comfortable right before you walk onstage.

There are 4 types of pre-talk rituals to consider trying before you go onstage. While selecting yours, think about how you want to come across to your audience.

Empathy Rituals

Empathy rituals help you connect better to the people in your audience. According to neuroscience professorPascal Molenberghs, “Empathy is important because it helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation.” A ritual that generates empathy can both help you humanize the individuals in the crowd and makes you less afraid of them.

You can build empathy by working the room before your talk to connect with attendees — ask them questions, learn what they’re interested in. Another technique is to zero in on a friendly face that you know in the audience from backstage. Or look at the stage from your audience’s vantage point. Renowned marketing speaker Nick Westergaard told me he always relies on this pre-talk ritual, “I sit in the audience and quietly look at the stage I’ll be on while taking some deep breaths. A great centering exercise that my high-school band teacher taught me.”

Consider trying a pre-talk empathy ritual if you:

  • Are speaking to an audience you don’t relate to
  • Get stage fright and clam up while speaking, losing your personality
  • Have high-stakes content that simply has to resonate

Line design of a lotus flower "Boost your energy levels"

Exertion Rituals

An exertion ritual before a talk is just what it sounds like: you exert yourself before you speak in order to get your heart moving, feel in touch with your body, and boost your energy levels. Exertion can amp you up, and it can also reduce the amount of anxiety you feel, since it naturally reduces the level of the stress hormones in your body. There are lots of ways to execute an exertion ritual, like doing a brief workout, dancing to hip hop music in your hotel room, or jumping up and down backstage. One contributor I interviewed told me he simply likes to walk around briskly and smile at everyone he sees.

Consider trying a pre-talk exertion ritual if you:

  • Are presenting at a high-energy, upbeat event
  • Feel ambivalent about the subject and need to appear excited
  • Tend to lack dynamism in your delivery

Geometric design "Silence and stillness"

Spiritual Rituals

Spiritual rituals are like the moments of silence and stillness I experience backstage. Mine include prayer, meditation, contemplation, and expressing gratitude for the opportunity. Spiritual rituals can help quell jitters and make you feel grounded and positive. What I do is breathe in slowly and deeply and exhale thoroughly each time. I do that three times and on the third inhale I do three short bursts of trying to get even more air in my lungs and then I exhale slowly. It calms me down.

Consider trying a pre-talk spiritual ritual if you:

  • Are a naturally amped up person
  • Tend to get extremely jittery or anxious before speaking in public
  • Have a spiritual practice that grounds you

Geometric design "Give not receive"

Mantra-Based Rituals

Mantra-based rituals are ones that help you prepare by using repetition and self-talk for soothing. Try repeating your favorite mantra to yourself before you go onstage. For example, you might say, “I’m there to give, not receive” or “Just be present and be yourself.”

Consider trying a pre-talk mantra-based ritual if you:

  • Feel soothed by repetition
  • Have a phrase or pattern of words that comforts you
  • Use self-talk to make you more comfortable or bold

When it comes to prepping for a talk, one size does not fit all. You can pick the pre-talk ritual that’s right for your speaking style or the scenario you’re presenting in. Or, you may find it helpful to try multiple rituals. The key is to tap into what makes you uniquely your best, right before you walk on stage.

A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.

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Illustrated by Radha Joshi