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Hacking Public Speaking: 3 Ways to Control Stress On Stage

By: Dave Asprey
July 18, 2011

Hacking Public Speaking: 3 Ways to Control Stress On Stage

One of the most stressful things a lot of people can do is give a talk in front of a crowd. Rapid breathing, flushed face, stuttering, and sweating are well known effects of the “fight or flight” reflex which comes from the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

I had these symptoms and more when I started public speaking, but being The Bulletproof Executive, I decided to hack my problem, with huge success. But I did it the hard way because I didn’t know any better. Now my efforts as a guinea pig can help you master stress-free public speaking in a lot less time. I’m writing a few blog posts explaining how I learned to be completely comfortable on stage in front of any audience.

I take public speaking really seriously – it is an art and a discipline that balances your awareness and control of your own automatic and conscious behaviors with your ability to adapt to your audience’s feedback in realtime. You are literally using your own voice, movements, and story to hack your audience – to get them to believe something, to learn something, to make a decision, or just to understand. What an amazing laboratory for biohacking!

Public speaking is also how I make my living. In addition to being a corporate strategist and technologist, I’ve been a top spokesperson for 3 publicly traded companies, including Trend Micro, where I’m VP of Cloud Security. Just talking isn’t enough; you have to be able to incorporate a vast amount of information, synthesize it, and then think on your feet.

The first thing I did to improve my public speaking was to spend a lot of time speaking in front of an audience so I could learn to overcome my stress by just getting used to it. I taught Web Engineering at UC Santa Cruz in the evenings for a year, learning from other teachers how to “work a room.” After a year, I was invited to run the entire program, which I did for 5 years while working at startups. (Sleep hacking is a good thing if you want to work a demanding job, teach for 3 hours, biohack, and then wake up the next morning ready to do it again…)

So I overdid the “learn from experts” and “practice” techniques you’d read about anywhere. I relied on measured feedback from my classes to tune how I presented. I got a quantitative effectiveness score derived from surveys at the end of a 10 week class. Over time, I learned what helped make an effective communicator and what didn’t. To control my stress, I relied on brute repetition to condition myself. What a waste of time.

After already being a well-regarded public speaker, I then did 3 things that completely upped my game. They’re the fast path to upgrading your abilities as a public speaker. They take far less time than 5 years of practice, and they’ll put you in the driver’s seat when you do practice your public speaking, dramatically decreasing the amount of time it takes you to be comfortable in front of an audience.

Here are the three techniques that make the most difference in public speaking:

  1. Learn to hack your audience’s brains with what you say and do (presentation techniques)
  2. Learn to anticipate and control your fight or flight ANS response (manage stress)
  3. Stay centered while speaking to increase your charisma & turn off the voices in your head (increase focus)

I’ll blog in more detail about how to do these techniques in upcoming “Hacking Public Speaking” posts. You can subscribe via email or follow us on twitter to be notified as soon as they go live.