What I Learned From a Cold Before a Big Presentation

Have you ever spent a whole lot of time perfecting your presentation only to brought down by a common cold?  Every speech trick in the book, will not save your presentation if you are you are not feeling your best physically and mentally.  I know this very well.

Three years ago, I had entered a speech competition. But, now some ordinary speech competition, one where you had to listen to a speech, given 5 minutes to analyze it and then provide positive and constructive feedback. Not only that it had to be given in the form of short speech in front of a large audience. That can be a tough hurdle on a normal day!

I had practiced long and hard. I watched over 200 YouTube videos.  Made notes on what to say for various given areas like structure, gestures, voice, use of the stage, etc. I knew I could quickly find the strengths and weakness of speaker with no problem.

However, there was a problem.  The day before the contest I got a cold. A really bad one. My throat was sore. My nose kept running. I coughed constantly. My head hurt. It was hard to concentrate. Obviously, I was not at my best.

As, someone who receives money for talking to people, being healthy is an essential skill. I cannot just say to the event organizer, “You know, I don`t feel well today, so let`s just cancel the big presentation that many people are coming to see.” I cannot just say to my students “You know, I don`t feel well today so let`s just cancel the presentation class today.” People paid money and made time to come to these events. The show, as they say, must go on.  But, what can you do?

For me it came to three simple rules for eating. This helped me get more energy, greatly reduced the colds I get (I get none, but sometime on the edge of one) and also reduced the effects of allergies even pollen count is very high.  

The rules are like this:

  1. No Sugar. Period.
  2. No Processed Food
  3. Eat lots of Vegetables and Good Fats.

So, for general health I :

  1. Be careful what I eat
  2. Do some exercise everyday
  3. Meditate even for a short amount of time

This seems to work for me and helps me be the best speaking on any stage or at any lecturn.

The No Sugar Rule

The No Sugar doesn`t mean that one should not eat one iota of sugar at all. It just means to deliberately avoid eating anything that has added sugar in it.

The WHO in a report published in 2015 “Sugar Intake for Adults and Children” recommend no more than 25 g per day (6 teaspoons). The average Japanese eats about 69 g per day. Much of which is in processed foods.  The average sugar cube is about 3g so Japanese are eating the equivalent of 23 cube every day. I know people like sweets but that is way too much. BTW, Americans are way worse, which is why there are many obese people there.

The problem is that there are lot of food that have sugar added to them. Just look at the labels. I took a look at a bunch of yogurt that is sold at the grocery store. Just about every one of them listed sugar as an ingredient. The labels will not tell you how much, but it is listed.  As far as I know you don`t need sugar to make good yogurt. I have machine that I use at home to make yogurt and it require no sugar. The sugar is only there to make us want to eat more.

It gets worse when you look at sport drinks. I used to do a little bit of exercise, especially before a big presentation. It helps the blood get pumping and can sometimes calm you down if you get nervous. At that time, I would have a sports drink, especially in the summer. However, after looking at the ingredient labels I notice that sugar was the number one ingredient and generally about 14~17 g depending on the manufacture for one “sports” drink. I noticed that and simply stopped drinking those.

I remember that probably CC Lemon was OK as it was just a lemon drink that was supposed to only add Vitamin C. I got that from the vending machine looked that the label and noticed it too had sugar as the number one ingredient. After that I have pretty much avoided any can or bottled beverages other than pure water.  I also avoided breads, process meats, sauces, etc. This is because after looking at the labels they contained a good deal of added sugar.

Some may say I may be a little paranoid about this, but it can get really annoying when on the one hand the snack or beverage is touted as healthy when all the other hand it is packed with more sugar than you would normal eat if you ate it in its original form. For goodness sake CC Lemon should only have extra Vitamin C not a enough sugar to get you to back to the dentist`s office for next month.

I have been on this No Sugar rule for more than two years and I can say for certain that I have never had a situation where a cold, the flu, or some other nasty virus has gotten the best of me before, during or after a presentation. Not only that, after a while you don`t even crave sweet things any more. You can concentrate more of writing and creating your speech than about what you are going to each after it is all over. And that is what I think is an important win.

Now, you may ask why is sugar so bad? After all there are all these kinds of food fads where one food is the ultimate villain one year and a hero the next.  One day you see that caffeine can cause heart attacks and the next day it is the great drug that can extend your life. Sugar, gluten, etc. have definitely been given and bad wrap and most of it is deserved.

For me the one reason why sugar is bad is that it can make you tired a few hours after eating it.  If you are speaking you want to be at peak energy.  For a short-term rush, caffeine and sugar can do the trick but try that for 1-hour speech plus workshops plus networking with the audience in between. It takes a lot of energy to do that.

BTW, if you take too much sugar your blood sugar level will spike up and your body will then race into gear to shove the sugar levels back into normal levels and your sugar levels will take a dive. This will cause you to get tired. That is not a good thing to be during the Q & A session.

If I don`t eat sugar, then how to do I maintain my energy levels? Well, I do eat more fats (ghee) and oils, I eat more vegetables than I have in the past. I do a light amount of excise and I do mediate. That is about the extent of it.

I am not a very high-tension guy like Tony Robbins. You will not see me jumping on trampolines (there is very little space for that) nor using crazy cryogenic pools. I have been thinking of taking a page from the Wim Hoff manual, but I just have not mustered the courage yet. In any case what I do has worked for me for more than two years since I have put my health back together.

Exercise, Don`t Overdo It

If you a lot speaking or do a lot of traveling, getting the time to do good exercise is very very hard. My wife even stopped running regularly because she could not make time in her busy schedule. There have been recent books that promise you get surprising results in a very short period of time with high intensity workouts. There is even a book called “The One Minute Workout.”

However, the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study reported in 2017, led by the Population Health Research Institute of McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences, showed that any activity is good for people to meet the current guideline of 30 minutes of activity a day, or 150 minutes a week to raise the heart rate. That guideline was given by the US Department of Health & Human Services. Let me repeat this any physical activity is ok. 

Most people when they see this report they think that they have run for 30 minutes or lift weights for 30 minutes or something like that. These are both very good activities.  I recommend that if any professional speaker wants to be able to run around on stage like Tony Robbins or show how buff you are then please go ahead.  But the fact of the matter is all you really need to do is walk a for thirty minutes every day.

If there is any exercise in my life it that and hiking in the mountains. I often take the time to walk right after lunch for thirty minutes or so. It is a great time to think and sometimes not to think (instead do a moving meditation). If you are much more social sort and want to talk people during lunch, then it much more advisable for you schedule your walking time in the morning or afternoon. If you are one of those people who have not made it habit, then please schedule the task in your calendar. If it is not in your calendar, it will not get done. So, do it now. I will wait.

Now I know that there are some of you who do want to do more exercise than just walking.  There are a couple of things that you could do.  I will list a few normal ones and then list a few crazier ones that only really crazy speakers should try.

Use weights:

You can get simple ankle and wrist bands that have added weights to them. This is useful if you keep a set in your office or at your home. Instead of just walking you put these own and now you are exercising your muscles. That is a good deal. If you are on the go, it can be hard to take the weights with you.  In that case there are version where you fill them with water. It is not quite the same, but you still get a result

Run:

I don`t do much running. But it can help.  Actually, I have found that running in place quickly for 5 or so seconds really helps with nervousness. This is because you ramped your heartrate up by running. So, by the time you are back to thinking about your speech your heart rate has already come down and you feel calmer. It is not the best remedy, but you don`t have the time to really address the issue of nervousness it is a good and temporary measure.

For those who want to take it up a notch, try practicing your speech when you are running. Actually, I would try jogging first. Please me talking, breathing and jogging at the same time is hard. You run out of breath quickly. You sometime loose concentration and forget who you are. Also, many people may look at you funny.  However, In this day and age of wireless phones and wireless mics.  You are just as likely as see a guy or gal walking down the sidewalk talking to the air. So, if you are not too loud you should be fine.

Mess Rehearsal:

If you want to try something really crazy, there is something called the mess rehearsal.  It is like a dress rehearsal (i.e. practice) , except that one person is trying to physically mess you up like Mr. Miyagi did in Karate Kid after Daniel finished his chores.  Believe me it is tough, fun for your partner, but if you go this far I doubt you will ever be distracted by anything and very rarely forget your speech.

 Just Stay Calm and Everything Will Be Alright

After doing some light exercise it also generally a good idea to put in some time for meditation. The is a little bit of confusion as what meditation is compared to mindfulness. These are different. Mindfulness tends to be focused on the senses and being more consciously aware of what is going on in the moment.  Meditation can be more general, use different mantra, include visualations of the past, the future, of whatever, or of nothing at all. The goal of meditation is not just achieving calmness but just improving yourself spiritually.

This sounds like it is way out there, but more and more major corporations are employing these kinds of problem in their own employee training. Google is the most famous example of this. But, other companies like Apple, Nike, and other Fortune 500 also have some kind of program, so it seemed like a good idea for me to have one too

The only reason I am interesting it is that feel that it helps you become a better speaker. How so?  Well, first one of the important aspects of a good speaker is being able to be in the moment. To give your talk to be fully aware of the mood of the audience, to know when someone is not getting it, or falling asleep or whatever. If you don`t do this you will lose your audience and your message will not get across. Also, if you are too wrap up inside your heat and inside your speech you will not notice these things at all. So, in that respect mindfulness especially import for speakers.

On the other hand, we have what Tim Ferris and others call the Monkey Mind (yes I know the word come from an ancient Chinese Buddhist reference) This is the kind of endless chatter that goes inside your head. Some of it is helpful, some of it is not. It is all a matter of how you deal with it. The better you are able to deal with the more clarity, confidence, and awareness you can bring to your presentation. So, for me I figure it is worth the effort.

Since I am a bit of tech nerd, I went in search of a good app. As after all there should be an app for everything. I tried Zenify, Netamanma Yoga, Undo, and others. They did not work well for me. If you check now there are probably a bunch more apps, including the “10% happier” app. There may even be one that fits with your own personal needs and preferences.

As for me I went with Omvana. In Omvana you can pick both free and fee tracks. One of the defaults was the Six Phase Meditation by Vishen Lakhiani of MindValley. He did an example of this on a YouTube video. I rather liked it and keep using it. It starts with a common relaxation process, then moves to connection, gratitude, forgiveness, visualization of your future 3 years from now, visualization of your perfect day, and final blessings.

There a whole lot more to meditation than even these six practices, but this is a great place to get started and so far it has worked for me. Unfortunately, there is no Japanese translation (that I am aware of) so you will need to find some other source for your own personal meditation practice. I recommend trying a bunch of things anyway.

Also, many people do have this image that meditation is hard. Especially if you are trying to aim for having a complete blank and serene state. I would not worry about that. Just let your thoughts come and let me go. Once you are comfortable with the fact that you are not the thoughts running around inside your head, it gets easier. Perfection can be the enemy of good, so just deal with being less than very bad. We also have to start somewhere and that somewhere is the “I am not really good at this” level.

While that covers the general meditation aspect. The more important aspect in the short term for speakers is cultivating your mindfulness skill. What I mean of mindfulness is the awareness of what is going on right now. I feel that there is not much that can be written about this, but many have done so. Those include the Harvard Business Review and Chade Meng-Tan who made it famous in Google and later the corporate world. You can look at their books if you want.

But the fact of the matter is to take time in your day and simple enjoy the silence or the noise or whatever is going on in the room. You will probably notice the rush of the car going by outside. You may hear sound of the air conditioner. You may hear the tap, tap, tapping of someone writing a report on a computer keyboard. You may feel your but hurt after sitting too long in your chair. Actually, these are all the things that I feel as I am writing this right now. But whatever is the case, just taking to the time out of your busy day just to feel, just to notice your own thoughts is time that is well spent. Even if it is only a few minutes.

One you cultivated a little bit of mindfulness in your normal life, it is then just a matter of practice of moving that into your presentation and to when you are acting on stage. It may seem like a lot to do. You have to deliver your line, make gestures, look at the audience, analyze the audience reaction, make adjustment all the while you still giving the rest of your speech. So, as with everything else work at one step at a time.

It has now been a while since first started on my journey into both physical and mental wellness for public speaking and presenting. But, dispite all the article on all the different techniques for voice, gestures, wordplay, storytelling, etc. These are still a simple a bag of trick if you don`t have the fundamentals down.

After all if you don`t have your health, then what do you have?