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Caffeine as Fuel for Writers, if Not Speakers

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[Back in 2015 I sung the praises of strong coffee as a sure aid in getting over writer’s block. It still has this virtue for many of us, but my aging self can’t handle a racing pulse from the same doses of caffeine. If, as they say, death is God’s way of telling us to slow down, more modest levels of caffeine may keep us in the game a little longer.]

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach. New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loves coffee. A lot of his cartoons have featured the stuff. My favorite is entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dietitians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s. At the wide base of Cheney’s chart are “The Caffeine’s” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchor the rest of a pyramid of necessities which include “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top. Together they make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker. (OK; probably not nicotine, which is an addictive and deadly substance).

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Cheney obviously knows about writers, which a movie mogul in the age of the typewriter once dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness. Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped by the spur of this addictive substance. We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant. Notwithstanding a New Yorker article a few years back suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in owing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my heart race.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry. As the Atlantic’s James Hamblin explains, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the doubting New Yorker article concedes the point: Caffeine

“boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration ... Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion."

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in. A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand. And then there are more recent studies in the last few years linking moderate caffeine intake with lower rates of Type 2 Diabetes, lower rates of depression, reduced risk of heart disease, and even human longevity.

But there is an exception. A person giving a presentation to a live audience probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase in adrenaline that comes when we face a group waiting to hear from us.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what amounts to two stimulants can be counter productive. They can make a presenter wired tighter than the “C” string at the top of a piano keyboard. We all know the effects; instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation. In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different. But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than vocal performance.

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Plan B

A goal of any presenter should be to show up early and troubleshoot all of the equipment.  That cuts your chances for a problem by perhaps half.

If you give presentations to groups you know the anxious moment when it dawns on you that the equipment you counted on is not working.  A teacher confronts this more every year, with no shortage of PowerPoints, streamed content, websites and cued videos to manage while still keeping a class on point.  These external elements can be so numerous that almost every class needs its own ‘pre-concert’ sound check.  Lucky are the lecturers and old style speakers who must simply offer a well-organized presentation in a package that is pleasant enough to hear. The rest of us who teach regularly seem to have fallen into the habit of running ersatz Youtube channels.

A recent address at Harvard represents this older style.  House of Commons Speaker John Bercow explained his role and this peculiar moment in British politics to a packed room with a magnificent timing and his usual panache.  His prose has the spaciousness of someone who knows he need not rush or show pictures.

In the meantime, the rest of us are scrambling for the clicker to keep our students engaged.

In a larger auditorium the chance for things to go wrong is greater.  Microphones can be unreliable and sometimes, work only intermittently. Outside noise can intrude.  Large spaces can have challenging acoustics. And ad hoc set-ups of projectors, cables and computers can easily let us down.

A goal of any presenter should be to show up early and troubleshoot all of the equipment.  That perhaps cuts your chances for a problem by half.  For the risks that remain. . .  well, you are pretty much on your own.  At a minimum, prepare by forcing yourself to consider what you will do if a key piece of equipment resists all attempts to revive it.  Think of this as your Plan B.

A few tips:

  • Be sure the mic works as its supposed to, without feedback noise and with as much clarity projected into the room as possible.  But also be aware that if you are wearing it, you may be ‘live’ to the audience longer than you intended.  In addition, repeat any questions that come from the audience.  They may not be able to hear each other.


  • Resist turning PowerPoints into a written lecture.  Remember that you need to remain the primary agent of communication.


  • Never set PowerPoint slides to run on a timer.  I think the most dysfunctional presentation I ever saw used just such a timed sequence which, of course, set a pace the speaker could not keep up with.  She faded into total confusion as pictures behind her appeared and vanished, seemingly at random.


  • If a space is noisy, ask if the air handling system can be turned off just for the length of your presentation.  As the presenter you need to assume the obligation of making sure you can be easily heard.


  • Put new batteries in the wireless remote  you may be counting on.  Double As are the usual size.


  • Ask the audience to move closer if the room is not full.


  • Keep your sense of humor.  Nerves or a flash of anger can make audiences uncomfortable. Think of an equipment failure as your chance to show that you are a change agent for all seasons.


  • As a last resort, a little tap dancing might buy some time.