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You’ve been preparing for this speech or pitch for weeks, maybe months. You’ve followed the lessons of the A-Ha! Method and developed a talk that’s going to get you that promotion, land you that funding, or raise your profile among your peers. The night before your talk you’re probably filled with excitement, nervousness and dread. You practice, practice, practice and go to sleep, ready for whatever comes tomorrow — the big day.
Professional public speakers know something very critical: your “big day” actually starts the night before. The entire 18–24 hours before your talk, pitch or keynote requires special care and planning, in an effort we describe broadly as “speaking hygiene.”
No, speaking hygiene is not about showering and smelling good (though that’s also important and the subject of another article), but it is about ensuring that your time before the talk is carefully curated to ensure you’ve got the right energy level, the right focus, and the right amount of good stress. In short, you need to think like a rockstar, and put everything into the big moment. Here are some of the most important considerations:
Make sure you know when your talk is, and ensure you’ve got enough sleep to maximize your alertness and calm. Time changes can wreak havoc on your body, so these must be factored in as well. If your talk is late in the day or you have an immovable scheduling issue, take a nap several hours beforehand. You’d be surprised how many major performers nap shortly before taking the stage — the key is to make sure your rhythms are in sync and you can do your best.
Eating is probably a major part of your day, and it can be tempting to just treat the day of your talk as any other day for food. But because too little food can leave you jittery and your stomach growling, and too much can leave you tired and sluggish, it’s crucial to time your meals appropriately. Eat well, but not too much and leave enough time to digest. Don’t eat anything heavy or carby right before, and definitely don’t walk out on stage with stuff stuck in your teeth (e.g. from a really recent bite). But do have something sweet nearby for after your talk: cognitively challenging activities deplete the energy in our brains and glucose is the cure.
Caffeine may or may not be part of your daily routine, but you’ll definitely be tempted to slam some back an hour or two before your talk as your energy flags and you worry about being at your best. Just as with food and water, make sure your caffeine intake is optimized for the talk you’re about to give. You want to make sure you don’t go overboard and end up jittery, or go under and laconic. If you want the caffeine to kick in right before your talk, plan to consume it approximately 20 minutes prior. Similarly, if you’re giving a really long talk, you might want to have some right before getting up on stage. Regardless, don’t overdo it. I’ve been there and it’s not cute.
I’m sure you think you know where to find the venue, your specific speaking location, and what time to be there. But don’t assume: it’s happened to me plenty of times where I get lost or the meeting point is non-specific, and I’m rushing to make it to my call time, out of breath and anxious. Whenever you can, do a walkthrough of the precise locations you need to be at and when. If you’re at an away event, you can do this the night before. If you’re somewhere local, do it the day of. Make sure you always leave yourself an additional 30 minutes to account for any hiccups, and don’t plan your flights or drives such that you’ll arrive right before your start time. Even celebrities build in contingencies. You should too.
You should do as little as possible before your talk begins. If your talk is first thing in the morning, you’ll have all day afterwards to socialize, network and the like. But if your talk is later in the day, you should focus on conserving energy for your performance. Wherever possible, don’t make significant intellectually-challenging plans for the time before your talk, and keep your socializing to a minimum. Again, think like a rockstar: the performance is the priority — and the point. Focus everything you’ve got on that one goal.
And therein lies the rub: the sooner you think of yourself as “performing” when you’re up on stage giving a talk, the better. Many speakers get caught in the loop of thinking they are Marketing Director first and speaker second, but on the day of a major and significant talk, embrace your inner diva. Prioritize your hygiene and watch your performance improve.