Watching the first few calamitous minutes of the Super Bowl — calamitous, at least, for Peyton Manning and the Broncos — I found myself thinking about adrenaline.  If there ever were an occasion to get pumped up, it’s the Super Bowl.  So much at stake, so many people watching, so many reputations and bragging rights on the line.  Not to mention careers, debts, families to support, and on and on.

So if you’re not sufficiently pumping up, tapping into that adrenaline, then you’re not preparing adequately.  Players know this, of course, which is why they have the rituals, the group chants and shouts, the inspirational speeches, and the like.

But sometimes, when the occasion is bigger than usual, you get too pumped, and then the effects of adrenaline can be deleterious.

I’m guessing that’s what happened to Manning and the Broncos.  Too much adrenaline caused them to be jittery, to get tunnel vision and hearing, and to jump the gun.  As a result, the snap from the center on the opening play misfired and suddenly it was 2-0 and the Broncos were behind and no longer in possession.


Speakers face the same issue:  how do you handle the adrenaline so that you have just enough and not a scintilla more?  Too little, and you won’t fill the room with energy.  Too much, and you’re liable to get happy feet, or a quavery voice, or forget your speech at the wrong moment.

Different techniques work for different people, but you need some combination of the physical and the mental, because adrenaline figures in both, and if you get a doom loop going, your fears reinforce your physical jitters, which reinforce your fears, and down you go.

So develop a physical routine which helps you deal with the physical symptoms – breathing, muscle group work, light exercise, meditation – whatever works for you.  And also create a mantra to have at the ready to respond to your nagging mental fears:  They won’t like me.  I’ll bomb.  No, I’ve prepared, I’m going to be fine.  The key is that you have to answer your mental fidgets every time they arise, or you will start the doom loop.  Every time.

I just gave a speech to 4500 people, a large audience for me, and in the run up to the event I had some initial sleepless nights and days of anxiety.  So I started working both the physical and mental aspects of adrenaline, and kept it up for the 2 weeks prior to the event.  On the day of the event, and especially waiting backstage, I was psyched, but not panicked, and my mental and physical prep had become a comfortable routine that was both soothing and focusing.  I talk more about how to do this in Chapter 6 of Power Cues, due out from Harvard in May.

If you don’t manage your adrenaline, it will betray you – and at the very moment when you can least afford it.  Think Manning.  Think Broncos, and prepare mentally and physically for the big day — and for the adrenaline.

The follow up question is, of course, why couldn’t Manning and the Broncos get their groove back?  Next time I’ll talk about how to get it back once you begin to choke in the moment.

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    1. Hi, Phil —

      Thanks for the comment — if you had to choose, too much would be better than too little, yes. But that’s the point — just right is what you need. And thanks for the offer — let’s plan on it. Let me know via email where to send a copy of the book (I should get them in April).

  1. Brilliant analogy for speakers Nick. You are the only person that I know who would watch that disastrous start and think “adrenalin”.
    My experience…how many times have I been coached to start with my planned statement/story and how many times have I disregarded that advice and started with how ya’ll doin…so glad to be here, blah, blah…adrenalin produced blubbering.
    Well FINALLY, in my last presentation to 1800(big for me) I followed your advice , stepped up to the front of the stage, breathed, scanned, counted down 3-2-1 and hit my stride with “My father was a Doctor”…the story… and it worked beautifully.
    Prepare, breathe, focus, get present and begin with a well executed story. Adrenalin will hold you and fuel you but you stay in control.

    1. Thanks, Betty — glad it worked, and glad that you followed my advice:-) I even followed my own advice, recently, talking to that audience of 4500.

  2. I watched Amy Cuddy speak on TED and she spoke about the chemical changes in the body produced by adopting, and holding, power poses for two minutes before you enter ‘the arena’. Apparently (hope I’ve got this right) your testosterone rises and your cortisol lowers, making you more buoyant and bullish on the one hand but not panicky when faced with a stressful situation.

    1. Hi, Andrew — I like the Cuddy TED talk, but it doesn’t go far enough. The power poses are a nice start, but if you don’t manage the mental side of things, you’ll still have that voice in your head saying, “I’m standing here like an idiot and I’m still going to blow the speech.” You’ve got to handle BOTH the physical and the mental aspects of adrenaline.

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