Visualization and Relaxation

One amazing gift of coaching the speakers for the 2010 Winter Olympic bid was working with the Olympic athletes. First, they were used to being coached and as such did not resist coaching, and second, they understood the power of visualization. As athletes, they practice seeing themselves doing a movement and doing it well, not just once but many, many times, until it is imprinted in their mind. They train their minds to help them succeed; remember, what you focus on, you create!

Take some time to do this exercise: Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed and lie down if possible. Make yourself comfortable, take three slow breaths and begin.

Visualize yourself getting ready to give your presentation, getting dressed. What are you wearing as you go to the front of the room? Now see yourself at the front of the room, giving your presentation. Notice how relaxed and comfortable you look. Now see the audience, nodding in agreement, smiling as you speak. Notice how good you look and how happy the audience is. Hear the applause as you finish. Well done.

Deep Breathing

To minimize the effects of stress and prevent activation of the fight-or-flight response, it is important to practice patterns that lead to de-escalation. In that highly stressed state, that condition in which your brain is flooded with electrochemicals, you still have options. You do not need to be stressed—you can choose a different state. After all, these chemicals do not persist; they will dissipate in three to six seconds, with some help.

Deep breathing relieves stress and anxiety because of its physiological effect on the nervous system. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, which is connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, which secretes the hormones that regulate all activities throughout the body.

The following technique consists of taking three slow, deep breaths to slow things down. Count silently and slowly to six as you breathe in through your nose, and push your stomach out rather than your chest. This allows you to breathe with your diaphragm and to get a deeper breath. Then breathe out through your mouth on a slow count of six. As you breathe out, say the word “relax.” Be sure to pace your exhale so that you have some breath left by the time you get to six. If you feel light-headed, slow it down a bit. Repeat three times.

Practice this technique each time you are aware of stress and eventually it will kick in automatically when you have a stressful situation. This simple technique can slow and even stop the fight-or-flight response.

Food & Drink

On the day of your presentation, or the day before if you are speaking first thing in the morning, eat what you know is good for you. Avoid eating or drinking anything you haven’t had before, and beware of spicy and rich foods, as your system is already under some stress. Relax and stick with your favourite foods and drinks. Don’t eat too much or too little. The process of digestion requires a great deal of energy, and a large meal will use up the energy you need for your presentation.

Avoid diuretics, notably caffeine drinks (coffee, tea and soft drinks). Drink water to hydrate before and during your speech. Avoid alcohol entirely before speaking, and don’t take drugs or smoke marijuana. I hope it is common sense not to get intoxicated. Even a small amount can impair your cognitive abilities, and you need to be at peak efficiency. Don’t listen to anyone who encourages you “to calm your nerves.” It may calm your nerves, but it will also impairs your judgment—and that’s always a bad thing with a microphone in your hand and an audience with smartphones.