All Articles Leadership Communication Maybe slap your face before your next presentation

Maybe slap your face before your next presentation

A pre-presentation ritual will help reduce jitters, add energy and build confidence before facing your audience. Learn what Stephen Colbert does, plus some tips that might work for you.

5 min read


Maybe slap your face before your next presentation

Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

Each night before walking onto the “The Late Show” stage to deliver his monologue, comedian Stephen Colbert slaps his own face. Twice — and “hard enough to regret it.”

Why the slaps? Colbert said in 2016 that the slaps jolt him awake and into the moment, “’cause you only have one chance to do the show.”

Many comedians and actors, athletes and musicians count on pre-performance rituals to ensure their success. As Colbert points out, such actions help prepare the mind and body for the task at hand.

Beyoncé has a special playlist she listens to and allows herself an hour of peace before every performance. Just before going onstage, she prays with her team members, then they stretch together.

Michael Jordan’s pre-game routine included wearing practice shorts from his University of North Carolina days underneath his Chicago Bulls game-day shorts. (This led to Jordan requesting longer Bulls shorts, pioneering the baggier shorts movement in the NBA.)

Speakers also have rituals

And most professional speakers I know — myself included — have rituals to prepare themselves prior to facing their audiences.

Before taking the stage, one speaker quietly recites a poem she learned in childhood. The stanzas comfort and relax her.

To stay focused on her upcoming talk, one speaker friend avoids making decisions the day of her presentation. Before leaving home, she determines exactly what she’ll wear for the presentation — from earrings to dress to shoes — and places the items in a plastic container tucked in her travel bag. The morning of her talk, she simply opens the container and dresses, decision-free.

Determine your pre-presentation ritual

What techniques can help get you mentally and physically ready before heading into your presentation? If you’ve not yet developed a routine, here are a few suggestions for becoming calm, invigorated and confident.

What calms you? Think about catalysts that help you release tension. Does a certain genre of music calm your mind? If so, listen to a few tranquil tunes before your presentation. Or if walking relaxes you, consider taking a quiet stroll around the venue as a precursor to speaking.

Another possibility is a breathing exercise. One technique I often recommend for anxiety is Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique. Breathe in through your nose for the count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven and then breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat the sequence at least four times and no more than eight times.

What invigorates you? “Calmly energized” is no oxymoron. With the right routine, we can be anxiety-free during presentations, yet also enthusiastic and filled with life.

And music may again be the panacea. Sounds counterintuitive, but my pre-presentation playlist includes a few soothing tunes, followed by two or three upbeat songs. The energy shift feels like a gentle ocean current transitioning into a forceful but focused wave.

And consider other ways to boost vitality. Before leaving home, one speaker asks his wife to write a few encouraging sentences on a slip of paper. Shortly before speaking, he unfolds the sheet and reads her words. He says this practice never fails to lift his spirits.

What stimulates you? Maybe viewing a few photos of your family? Perhaps reading a few paragraphs by a favorite author? Maybe listening to a short audio clip from the talk of a sports coach or motivational speaker? Determine your invigorating resource and add it to your ritual.

What boosts your confidence? Consider self-talk. Research by University of Toronto psychologist Sonia Kang found that self-affirmations help reduce the stress of performing in high-pressure situations.

“Anytime you have low expectations for your performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations,” she explained in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat.”

During my years as a public speaker and speaking coach, I’ve modified a mantra first developed decades ago by legendary image consultant Dorothy Sarnoff into four potent statements:

  1. “I’m excited to speak.”
  2. “I appreciate my audience.”
  3. “I know what I know.”
  4. “I’m here to help.”

Repeating these lines to yourself with enthusiasm and conviction can help reduce self-doubt and channel mental energies in a more positive direction. Enhance the mantra by visualizing yourself in front of your audience, filled with power and confidence.

Rituals, be they societal or personal, are always about transformation. So whether it’s an amalgam of actions like the above suggestions or a singular slap in the face, develop a pre-game process that helps transform you into a calm, inspired and confident presenter.


Sam Harrison is an author, speaker and coach on presentation skills and on creativity-related topics. His latest book is “Creative Zing!” and you can find him at his website.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadership and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.