The “Trick” to Calm Your Speaker Nerves

Lift one corner of your mouth up.
Then lift the other corner up.
There. You have it.
An asana, or pose, for how to face the world.
It’s also the “trick” speakers use to connect.

Earlier this week, I shared with you the backstage story of nervousness just as I was about to give my talk at TED2013. Two hours before I was shaking violently. In the moment itself, I had a smile on my face and showed up fully alive. What happened in the middle is a trick you can use next time you want to really resonate with a crowd or even just one person.

A month before the talk, someone I hadn’t yet met in person wrote a note asking if a few people could take me out to breakfast the morning of the talk as a way of showing support. I was pretty sure I would have thrown up on their shoes that morning of, so I’m glad I never said yes. Instead, I suggested they wear a bright color and sit up front in the audience. When you see a few friendly face, you remember how much a community wants you to do well. Whenever that happens, I can stop fretting about remembering every idea I had on the topic, and instead just connect. I was counting on this technique to ground me, so that I wouldn’t mentally run up the ladder into my head. When I speak from my head alone, I am going to try and impress with braininess. When a speaker combines head and heart, they not only inform, they resonate.

As I walked into the hall, I made eye contact with Jane McGonigal. If you don’t already know of Jane, you should. She’s a fellow TED speaker, the NYT best-selling author of Reality is Broken, and a brilliant game designer. (I met her years ago playing Werewolf, which is a weird strategy game, at something called Foo Camp at 1:00 in the morning or something like that.) She made a heart with her hand, and gave me a big smile from a few rows away. (Here, in this picture, she’s reproducing the moment for posterity … just caught on my cell phone camera).

I calmed right down.

Jane McGonigal Hearts Nilofer Merchant


So that’s the trick. It’s so simple, perhaps even too simple to believe. But research shows people listen better when they connect with you, emotionally. No faster way to do that than to smile. or Laugh. It’s a stance or asana you can use anytime. In family life, in meetings, and if you are ever lucky enough to address a crowd. Just lift up one corner of your mouth and then the other.


3 Replies

  1. Great insight, Nilofer. Speaking from both heart & head is so important. To me, talking from your head sends you on a quest for sound bites and throws you off your game. Speaking from the heart? It taps your genuine passion for the topic, and is how you connect emotionally. More and more I’m realizing that’s the magic. The last two times I spoke to a crowd it was more “fire side chat” than “talking head” though you couldn’t tell from the format. There were still Powerpoints. But I barely looked at them, they were just there to guide the conversation ..

    That said, if I ever get to speak at TED, I just hope I have friends like you and Jane making hearts in the front row 🙂


  2. Good article Nilofer. Having a smile and being intimate with your story, makes every presentation go better & easier. When you start with a smile and knowing your story, you end with a bigger smile, knowing you did what you set out to do. Thanks for sharing

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