This is a photo of me MCing the Edmonton Event Awards on February 25th. This picture tells both a truth and a lie.
The truth is that grin and overall impression of enjoyment. I had a great time MCing the event! I love MCing, and this was a particularly fun night. The audience was fantastic, my material was engaging and funny, the program was fast-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with the event organizers.
The lie is my appearance of rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed health.
I was as sick as the proverbial dog that night. My kids and I were all mowed down by some evil plague earlier that week, and the night of this event I was still feverish and aching from pounding headache to cough-weary lungs. I was literally shivering despite the heat of the stage lights.
No matter how you cut it, speaking when you are sick sucks. And the likelihood that one day you’ll need to do the same is quite high. So how do you make it through? Here are my top recommendations.
Before I begin, I must stress that these steps are to help you survive that night. None of these are about supporting your immune system or preventing illness – if you are sick on performance day, it’s too late for that. Pounding all the vitamin C in the world won’t do a hill of beans of good. No, what you need to focus on is symptom suppression and plain old survival.
- Understand that the adrenaline rush you’ll get once you are on stage helps a lot.
Not a word of a lie, your body is remarkably good at giving itself its very own chemical boost once its show time. The surge of adrenaline that comes with performance jitters or nerves helps suppress a wide variety of unpleasant symptoms. It’s one of our evolutionary survival mechanisms.
- Limit talking and other physical activity as much as possible prior to showtime.
Cancel your meetings, don’t pick up the phone. Preserve every ounce of energy and strength you have, and for the love of everything that’s holy, don’t strain your voice! You’ll be doing that once you are on stage. I even recommend avoiding driving yourself to the venue – it’s an activity you can probably find help with, and you are going to be so exhausted afterwards that you probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car anyway. On this night, my darling father stepped in and provided chauffeur service while my hubby stayed home with the kids.
- Make liberal use of decongestants and cough suppressants.
I find that most strong sinus decongestants with pain relievers, like Day-Quil and Buckley’s All-In-One are pretty effective at keeping the snot at bay. Ensure that your drug of choice also contains a solid cough suppressant, because the last thing you’ll need is a fit of hacking when you are on stage. Go with something tried and true, and avoid any drugs that cause unpleasant side-effects. Some people swear by corticosteroid nose sprays, but I find that they exacerbate my headaches, so I avoid them.
- Fuel up on simple carbs and caffeine shortly before your talk.
You need easily digestible and easily accessible fuel – that means simple, cheap carbs. Yes, you will crash afterwards, but you are going to be a mess anyway. Get your blood sugar up about 20 minutes prior to your talk. Also load up on some caffeine. In addition to the quick energy boost, it helps bring down headaches and is unlikely to react with your sinus meds (see point #3).
- Fully support your voice with strong core support and diaphragmatic breath.
This is critical. This is one of the reasons why I am obsessed with diaphragmatic breath and proper posture. When you are sick, that muscular support and properly placed breath becomes even more important than it already is. It will help give you a stronger, richer voice and better air control when you are stuffed up or sore from coughing. It also helps you place your voice properly and helps slow down vocal strain. You will strain your voice regardless, but this minimizes the damage and helps you sound nicer. It is the reason why I sounded “attractively husky”* instead of only being able to speak in a rasping, wheezing squeak throughout the program.
- Have a bottle of water available and sip it throughout the program.
This is straightforward. The water will help keep your throat and mouth moist, will give you a way of resting when you need an extra breath, and will help prevent you from getting overly dizzy.
- Accept that you will have no voice for at least a couple of days afterwards.
If possible, cancel any non-critical meetings or appointments the next day. Even if you take all the steps above, you will have placed considerable strain on your voice and body. Once the adrenaline from the performance wears off, you will feel like you’ve been run over by a truck and will likely have nothing more than hoarse whisper where your voice used to be. I lost my voice completely for two full days after this particular performance – the only sounds I was capable of producing were squeaks and honks. If you have no choice and must use your voice again before you have been able to recover, repeat steps 1 through 6 and know that your recovery will take even longer.
Sick happens.** It’s a fact of life, and if you are a speaker, you need to be prepared to deal with it. You’ll get through it. It might not be your best performance and you certainly won’t be your usual melodious self, but you’ll get through it. And the next day, when people ask you what on earth happened to your voice, you can whisper to them the amazing feat of strength and endurance you performed the day before and feel like the dedicated badass you are.
*That was how one of the event organizers described my voice that night. He said it was “kind of sexy.” I thought that I sounded like I had a two-pack-a-day habit.
*You’ll notice that I didn’t address the need to vomit or any problems that may come from, ahem, your “other end.” I really can’t speak from experience, thank god, as I’ve yet to have that kind of illness on a performance day. In those cases, all I can recommend is avoiding as much food as possible earlier that day (go for limited quantities of highly sugared fluids like sports drinks instead) and chugging Imodium or Pepto Bismol. If possible, inform the event organizers what is going on to that they can step in for you if you need to beat a hasty retreat from the stage. If things are really dire, consider tapping into your network and calling in every favour under the sun to find a last-minute replacement speaker.