A cup of copy is in the foreground. The text on it reads "Im sorry for what I said before i had my coffee"

The Perfect Coffee Ritual: How to Use Caffeine to Enhance Your Public Speaking Skills

Coffee has a place in public speaking. Just it’s place probably isn’t where you think. Lets start with two lists. Each is a list of common side effects:

  • increased heartrate
  • decreased heart rate variability
  • increased blood pressure
  • higher body temperature
  • shaky
  • increased stomach acid, acid reflux
  • anxiety
  • dehydration
  • increased heartrate
  • decreased heart rate variability
  • sweating
  • jitters
  • pit of stomach feel
  • anxiety
  • dry mouth

One of these two is a list of the side effects of coffee. The other is a list of side effects of a fear of public speaking. Can you guess which is which?

There are differences, but you’ll notice many of them are the same or related. So, much so that you could be excused if you couldn’t pinpoint which was which. Just to take an example, caffeine shakes and speaker’s jitters look and feel very much alike. Physiological reactions are easy to confuse, and yet very critical for us.

Coffee * Public Speaking = mega stress

Lets first consider what happens if we use caffeine in a public speaking situation. The caffeine is going to cause your body to respond physiologically. Now you get up in front of people and start to speak. Unfortunately the way we figure out how we are doing, is via our physiological state. The coffee has increased that state, so we automatically start off with the feeling of arousal. In the best case this is excitement, but if we are uncertain, we interpret the same signals to indicate we’re in trouble.

This is when things really start going poorly. If this is a high stress situation or you just aren’t comfortable speaking in front of people, you become very focused on those internal cues. You become certain that everyone can hear your heart beat. Certainly it is what you hear in your ear. You just know everyone can see you start to tremble and sweat rings must be forming. This makes you believe you are doing even more poorly, causing the stress to mount.

There is no differentiation in the body on the cause of the physiological changes and humans emotion is largely dictated by our physiological state. The stimulant caffeine starts a cycle of ever increasing stress, as we miss-interpret our own state, causing us more stress. The effect isn’t additive, but rather multiplicative.

Based on that we might say: Don’t coffee and public speaking.

Stimulating to simulate

The title of this post suggests caffeine can be useful in public speaking, and it does have its place. For instance, you still might want to make sure you are fully awake the day of your talk, consuming caffeine well before your presentation and drinking plenty of water in the period before (see this post). There is an even better use for caffeine in public speaking, in training and speech preparation.

Caffeine is a great tool for simulating the stress of public speaking. The side-effects are very similar. Hence stimulate to simulate.

How do we do this? We’ll take a cue directly from the original inspiration for this post:

“pound, say, two double espressos … I would add caffeine, so I would have to deal with a highly stimulated, sympathetic active nervous system.” Tim Ferris, Tim Ferris Show #250

Unless you are a coffee junkie, 2 double espressos is pretty extreme. Just go for a bit more than you normally would, about 10-15 minutes before you practice. The point is to use the fact that the side-effects are very similar to our advantage. In this way we can use what is normally a low stress situation – a practice situation that has little or no lasting social impact on our life – to create a situation where we have to deal with physiological responses similar to what the real high stress situation will cause. We simulate the stress response, so we can practice speaking under that effect.

Tim has some tips in that same show on how to get a series of lower stress audiences (starts about min 49). While great suggestions, very few of us can just ask a company to let us come in and give a talk. Still the concept is the same, find a lower social impact situation where you would normally be OK. Mix in caffeine to simulate the high stress.

Coffee: Training yes, presentation no

The side-effects of caffeine and public speaking are very similar. Combining them creates a multiplicative effect, meaning the impact is very high. Those are the conditions you want to avoid if you want to give a good speech. However, we can use coffee’s stimulating effects to simulate higher stress in public speaking training and practice sessions. This is a great trick in combination with VR training.

Now, go get a double shot in your favorite drink and start overcoming your fears and perfect those presentations.

Founder/CEO at Virtual Orator

Dr. Blom is a long time researcher in the VR field. He is the founder of Virtual Human Technologies, which applies VR and avatar technologies to human problems and helping better understand people. Virtual Orator exists largely because Dr. Blom wishes he had had such a tool instead of the ‘trail by fire’ he went through learning to speak in public.


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