There is a saying in the US Army about the need for high-level preparation: “Train as you fight.”
That is, all of the practice in the world is meaningless if you’re overcome with fear during battle — you need to develop skills as much as you need to develop an ability to perform under pressure.
In a recent episode of his podcast, “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “Tools of Titans” author Tim Ferriss said that this philosophy dictated the way he prepared for the TED Talk he gave this April in Vancouver. It connected with the TED audience and went viral with over a million views when it was later posted online.
He shared three exercises he used, noting that they are as relevant for preparing for a TED Talk as they are for any performance, from taking a graduate school test to competing in an athletic event.
1. Mimic game day conditions as much as possible.
It’s great if you can perform well on an MCAT practice test in your serene home office, Ferriss said, but on the day you take the test, you may find yourself in a crowded test hall sitting next to someone sneezing or fidgeting.
Ferriss knew that if he practiced his TED Talk in front of friends, their familiarity would make his rehearsal go without a hitch. So, using his business connections, Ferriss arranged several trips to startups, where he could perform his talk in front of around 20 strangers eating lunch. It wasn’t a recreation of the TED conference, obviously, but it was much closer to that feeling than the alternative.
“I don’t want my first rehearsal in front of a large group of strangers … to be when I stand up in front of 3,000 people or however many at TED, with the spotlights on me,” he said. “That’s just asking for catastrophe.”
2. Practice with an accelerated heart rate.
To start, words of warning from Ferriss: “Don’t be an idiot. Use common sense.”
He said that he knew when he stepped onto the TED stage, his heart “would be pounding through my chest,” and so to get familiar with this feeling while speaking, he decided to “pound, say, two double espressos” for a practice session after he had grown accustomed to speaking in front of a group of strangers.
He wanted to practice with a “highly stimulated” nervous system. In the past, he’s raised his heart rate with exercise rather than caffeine — whatever it takes to simulate a feeling of urgency.
3. Practice with little sleep.
Ferriss said that one of the worst things you can say to yourself after a performance of any sort is, “If only I had had enough sleep.”
It’s a common experience because nerves before a performance often result in a poor night’s sleep, and it’s why Ferriss recommends practicing at least once while exhausted. That way, you can have the confidence that if you wake up the day of the performance more tired than you would like, you won’t immediately begin fearing that you may not be able to perform.
For his TED Talk, Ferriss chose a night to sleep for only four hours, then waited until the time of day his real talk would take place. Then, he practiced his presentation multiple times in this state of near exhaustion.
“It’s not enough to have the skills,” Ferriss said. “You have to have the comfort with discomfort. That can be achieved by adding stressors.”
You can listen to the full podcast episode at his website or wherever you get podcasts, and you can watch the TED Talk below.