The crucial piece of advice TED gives to nervous speakers

A house of friends.
A house of friends.
Image: Ryan Lash / TED
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From push-ups and power poses to meditation or even medication, there’s no shortage of advice aimed at nervous public speakers. But the best coping strategy may be less complicated than any of that.

After coaching hundreds of speakers over the past 20 years, curators of the elite TED ideas conference have a simple, perspective-shifting mantra that seems to help allay nerves: “Everyone here is on your side.”

It’s effective because it directly addresses what is commonly at the root of the discomfort for nervous speakers. Blame Statler and Waldorf (the crotchety balcony critics in The Muppet Show) or the visions we can so easily conjure of booing masses hurling eggs and rotten tomatoes at us when we stand at the front of a room. Much of the anxiety about public speaking comes from the basic fear of being harshly judged.

To relax about taking the stage, subverting deep-seated notions about predatory audiences is key, TED organizers say. During rehearsals, TED coaches often urge presenters to imagine that they’re speaking among friends.

Why are we afraid of public speaking?

Stage fright stems from human evolution, according to Lisa Wentz, a San Francisco-based public-speaking trainer who has worked with TED speakers. “[The] experience of being watched closely was intimately interwoven with the very real possibility of a life-threatening event such as being stalked by an enemy or animal,” she writes in her new book Grace Under Pressure: A Masterclass in Public Speaking. “When speakers say to me, ‘I hate the feeling of having eyes on me,’ they are reacting to this feeling of exposure steeped in 500,000 years or more of evolution. It’s part of the fight-or-flight response mechanism that we inherited from our ancestors.”

In TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Monica Lewinsky recounts the range of tactics she tried in preparation for a revelatory 2015 talk on shame.

“I used bioresonance sound work, breathing exercises, a therapy called emotional freedom technique, chanted, did various warm-up exercises with my public speaking coach, went for a walk to move the adrenaline in my body, made sure I laughed at least once, grounding visualization, and lastly I power posed,” she notes. “There was more than one moment where I doubted my ability to see the speech through.”

Ultimately, affirmation from friendly strangers worked to calm her. Lewinsky, the onetime White House intern who became embroiled in the sex scandal that led to the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, gained confidence from curators during a run-through. “I planned to bow out after rehearsal but I was shocked at the positive reaction. I kept waiting for the ‘However…and,’ but it never came,” she recalls.

Rooting for you.
Rooting for you.
Image: Ryan Lash / TED

How to picture a world of support

A botched presentation or pitch doesn’t benefit anyone. It isn’t just embarrassing for the speaker, it’s also disappointing for attendees who give their time and attention, both precious commodities. In that context, it makes perfect sense for speakers to envision a supportive audience.

If it’s still too challenging to assume that an entire crowd is behind you, TED curator Chris Anderson advises checking around for a few friendly faces. “Early on in the talk, look out for faces that seem sympathetic,” he writes in TED Talks. “If you can find three or four in different parts of the audience, give the talk to them, moving your gaze from one to the next in turn. Everyone in the audience will see you connecting and the encouragement you get from those faces will bring you calm and confidence.”

And if you trip over a few lines, so what? Anderson suggests it might even work to your benefit.

“Audiences embrace speakers who are nervous, especially if the speaker can find a way to acknowledge it. If you flub or stutter a little in your opening remarks, it’s fine to say, ‘Oops, sorry, a little nervous here,” he advises, extolling the power of vulnerability. “Your listeners will be rooting for you even more.”