How Leonard Cohen dealt with stage fright



We mourn the passing of Leonard Cohen and rightly so. I can’t add anything new to the many excellent tributes already published about his poetry (because he was an established poet for some time before he also began singing and hence broadened his appeal and earning power.

I want to talk about an aspect of his performing life that many performers will sympathise with: his stage fright, or performance anxiety, or whatever you like to call it. We know now that fame and experience don’t necessarily get rid of stage fright: Judi Dench, John Lennon and Henry Fonda have all admitted to it, if I pick just three stellar names. Leonard Cohen’s was at another level and therefore the way he dealt with it was fairly drastic, at least it was at first.

I first became aware of this when researching a speech I was about to give at a Toastmasters International meeting and have in fact given many times since. My chosen topic was “what can we speakers learn from other performers, when it comes to pre-performance rituals?” I could have chosen actors or instrumentalists or athletes as examples of other performers but I chose singers; and popular singers in particular. Why was that? Because we know a lot about them and because Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

My singers and their rituals were Chris Martin of Coldplay, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, Elvis Presley and … wait for it …. Leonard Cohen.

When I wrote that speech Cohen was over 80 and was still performing. However he used to suffer badly with stage fright. His strategy was twofold. He recited Latin chants with his backing singers and he drank a whiskey.

The whiskey (or whisky, if one’s preference is for that spirit to come from Scotland, or rye from his native Canada, rather than Ireland or the States) is not unusual but Latin chants certainly are. Leonard Cohen truly was unique.


DX6516_2905414b[1]“The amount UK consumers owe on loans and credit cards grew by £1.9bn in March 2016, the highest figure in 11 years, driven by a sharp rise in spending on plastic.”    (The Guardian)

If personal debt really is increasing again at a worrying rate, then a growing number of people could soon be facing the stress of a debt crisis.

For anyone facing this kind of problem, debt advisers might say things like this:

  • Don’t ignore the situation. Open the demand letters, make a list of the balances.
  • Always respond to every communication from a creditor. That shows you’re serious about dealing with the situation.
  • Make an offer. Explain if you can’t offer more.

To those basic steps, I’d add another:

  • Always communicate in writing. You’ll have a record of what was said and agreed; and it’s less stressful than dealing with creditors on the phone.

Avoid the phone

Many years ago I was in that situation, when my small business failed and I owed money to 26 creditors. Negotiating with all of them took a long time but eventually I came through it without permanent scars on my sanity (as far as I know).

I always negotiated in writing, never on the phone.

Dealing with a creditor on the telephone is stressful. My voicemail took a lot of the strain (what a great invention, whether you have an actual machine or a service from your phone provider) but if a creditor left a message I always responded … in writing.


One of the complications that I occasionally encountered was the involvement of intermediaries. Some were bogus law firms which were actually departments of the creditor company, with stationery designed to give the impression of being a genuine law firm, in order to intimidate.

When dealing with intermediaries of any kind, I was always extra-polite, working on the assumption that they hadn’t been fully informed, so I would write things like: “maybe you don’t know, but in the letter of so-and-so from your client …” and I’d enclose or attach a copy of the previous correspondence.

Not keen on writing letters? Help is available!

You might say that writing letters (or emails) is not your strong point. That’s no problem, because lots of debt management organisations can help you. For example, here in the UK, Citizens Advice Bureaux are all over the country and their advice is free and impartial. They helped me greatly. The other major nationwide debt advice charities are StepChange and National Debtline. There are also many local not-for-profit advice providers: for example in Bristol, where I live, there’s Talking Money. There’ll be one near you.

Buying time: it helps your negotiation

The other benefit of working with one of the debt advice charities, or any adviser, is that it creates a little distance between you and the creditor and it buys you some time. So, if a creditor calls you rejecting your offer and gives you a counter-proposal, you can say (politely, of course!) “thank you; but could you put that in writing, please, because I have to refer it to my advisers.”

Letter templates

Templates for standard letters / emails are available from some of the organisations I mentioned above. You can also find templates in my book Back to the Black.

Want to know more?

This article is an extract from my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way.


Are you a Scrooge or a splurger … or both?

champagneWhen I launched the second edition of my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way, we had a party. The subject of debt is serious, of course, so we felt a little frivolity would be good. The party – sorry, launch event – was chaired by my good friend, the author and journalist Debbie Young, and she came up with a great idea to get everyone involved.

It seems that many of us save money by making small economies on necessities – ‘Scrooging’ – but then immediately blow much larger amounts on luxuries – ‘Splurging’.

So we invited our audience members to give examples of how they’d done exactly that. Nearly all of them were happy to accept the challenge.


 Our question was this: “please share your best money-saving tip … and then confess your worst extravagance.”

Here are the answers we got:

  • “Looking for the double-points deals at Tesco … but then using a store card (with an APR of over 30%) to buy clothes.”
  • “Buying at charity shops or getting stuff from Freecycle … but then buying a piano when I didn’t have anywhere to put it.”
  • “Buying most of our food (and all of our drink) at Aldi … but then buying a BMW for my business.”
  • “Using a ‘My Waitrose’ loyalty card to claim a free coffee and newspaper if spending more than £10 at the weekend … but then spending far more than that £10 minimum.”
  • “Going to the M&S bakery after 6pm to stock up on reduced bread and cakes to freeze for later … but then staying overnight at the Waldorf Astoria to attend a wedding, when I could have stayed at the Travelodge.”
  • “Refusing to pay £1 for a bus-fare, even in the rain … but owning several pairs of shoes that cost more than £150 each.”
  • “Calculating the total cost of credit before buying anything on a card … … but then buying a new motorbike.”

These were all good; but the winning entry on the night of the launch combined a Scrooge and a Splurge in one short and elegant phrase:

“Champagne with out-of-date food.”

We thought that deserved a prize.


The launch event at which this fun idea was kicked around was for the second edition of Back to the Black. It was held at the Bristol branch of Foyles’ bookstore.

We offered a prize for the best Scrooge & Splurge idea. In keeping with the theme, it was a toy car … a Bentley, of course. Also in keeping, the drinks and nibbles  were all sourced from the aforementioned Aldi. (For readers who are not UK-based, that’s a German-owned budget supermarket.)


Scrooging and Splurging, even within minutes of each other, is very understandable. I do it myself. But I know that there would have been no point in extricating myself from a debt crisis (which I did in the late ‘90s, as I relate in Back to the Black) would have been pointless if I’d then got back into debt. So I have to be sure that my Scrooge incidents outnumber the Splurge incidents.

“Scrooging and Splurging” could also be expressed as “enjoying life, while keeping the finances in order”. This and many related topics will be featured in my next personal finance book.

Its working title is Staying in the Black and I plan to launch it by the end of the year.


Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way is available to order at all good bookshops.

Both Kindle and paperback editions are also available on Amazon:





Muhammad Ali and what he can teach every public speaker

muhammad ali pinball machine_i am the greatestThe world mourns Muhammad Ali; and rightly so. How many sportspeople will have the eulogy at their memorial service given by a former American president? But that is what is about to happen today in Louisville, Kentucky. At his peak Ali was one of the most famous and most recognisable people on the planet; he was loved especially here in the UK, partly for his boxing and partly when we saw his sharp wit on his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. He may have been untutored but the intelligence was ferocious.

I’m not writing about his boxing, because it’s all been said by people very much more qualified than I. This is about his positive attitude to life and to events, which must have been a contributory factor to his success

We cannot all be boxers, or elite sportsmen of any kind. We can’t all have the ability to improvise humorous replies as fast as he could. But if you ever have to prepare for a potentially stressful occasion – a speech, a stage performance, a difficult meeting – there are two important and practical things you can learn from him.


Firstly, and famously, we remember how he talked about himself: “I am the greatest!” He started doing this before he became world champion. Later in life, when questioned about that phrase, he said: “yes, I said I was the greatest  … even before I was.” Some people – especially here in the UK – put this down at first to arrogance but now, I think, we know better than that.

In an interview, Ali said he first got the idea from a wrestler called Gorgeous George, with whom he shared a platform at a promotional event early in his career. Gorgeous George was not a particularly successful wrestler but increased his popularity by telling jokes and saying “I am the greatest!” Ali heard that and immediately began to copy it.

What’s the lesson for us, particularly if we come from a more self-effacing culture? We probably won’t say “I’m the greatest”; but we could at least avoid the ‘self-sabotage’ of saying to ourselves and others: “I’m not much good at XYZ.” If you tell yourself something often enough, your subconscious mind will start to believe it, whether or not it’s true. That’s something that the young Cassius Clay understood very well.

Predicting and visualising the outcome: creating ‘future history’

So Ali was the greatest, and he told himself so. He also used another very specific method of training his subconscious to expect the best, by creating what he called his ‘future history.’

When a new fight was arranged and he attended a press conference to announce it, immediately afterwards  he would excuse himself, go up to his hotel suite, draw the blinds, and just sit down and relax, breathing deeply, and create a mental picture of the end of the fight.  More than just creating a picture: he even used to predict in which round he was going to win; he would get into that level of detail.

And he would create this picture of the end of the fight: opponent flat on his back; referee raising his own arm; Harry Carpenter climbing through the ropes with a microphone.  Then he would freeze-frame that picture and carry it around for the next two or three months until the day of the fight. That was his version of what’s sometimes called ‘creative visualization’ but I prefer the term he himself used: ‘future history.’

So how could Ali’s method be tailored to your needs? What’s your equivalent of that knockout moment? This is where you go back and remember what is your purpose in giving the speech, or whatever performance you have to give. Then you can create your own picture of a successful outcome – by your own definition; nobody else’s. For example, if you’re speaking at a wedding, your picture could be of the smiling bride appreciating what was said, an enthusiastically applauding audience, etc. Those kinds of mental pictures can help you anticipate the day ahead with pleasure rather than dread.

A man who transcended his sport.

Me? I was never a fan of the brutal sport of boxing; but I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. Like everyone else on the planet, I watched him every chance I got, whether he was fighting or just talking. He dominated his sport, changed attitudes to minorities, and lit up our lives.


Warning for Wedding Speakers … the Clock is Running Now

Bridal couple against clock face

Bridal couple against clock face

They say that every picture tells a story. They also say a picture is worth 1000 words. Of course ‘they’ could be wrong; but I now believe the truth of both sayings. You see, I coach speakers; and I’d recently set up a Facebook page for my forthcoming book The Wedding Speaker’s Handbook.

I needed what Facebook calls a ‘cover photo’; that’s the one that goes right across the screen. So I went immediately to, my current go-to site for finding royalty-free pictures. Or at least reasonably-priced pictures. I typed in the search term ‘weddings’ (no flies on me, no sir). And sure enough there were many pictures that could fit the bill, because if there is one thing that weddings reliably produce (apart from happy families, I hear you say), it’s lots of beautiful photographs.

The clock face

However, I then found a wonderful photo of a bride and groom silhouetted against the background of a large clock-face. That clock-face was back-to-front, so you could imagine that they had been shot inside Big Ben or some similarly impressive clock. So I downloaded that picture; by the way it was taken by a photographer and digital media blogger called Ricky Ochs, from Colorado, to whom many thanks.

The questions

Why do I like that picture? It’s because, when I have a decision to make, I have a favourite rhyme which goes like this:

“I keep six honest serving-men.
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When;
And How and Where and Who.”

(Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling)

Answering one or more of those questions – which are, of course, open questions – usually helps me decide.

Here’s what I take from that rhyme, for anyone who is going to speak at a forthcoming event, particularly a wedding. Of those six open questions, you certainly know the Where and When. If it’s a wedding, you probably knew the time and the place very well in advance. In fact the idea for The Wedding Speaker’s Handbook came about when a friend first asked me to help him with a speech for his daughter’s wedding; it was more than a year before the big day. And that sort of lead time is not uncommon.

So Where and When are questions that are generally set in stone a long time in advance. Carrying that information around for a year or more is a potential source of stress for the speaker. So what can you do to reduce your stress, if you are that speaker? The answer, briefly, is that you have to start your planning process now, because it is never too early to start planning a wedding speech. And the remaining four questions in that Kipling rhyme will help the process.

In summary, the picture tells a story for wedding speakers; but it also tells a story for me personally. For those speakers, it’s this: from the moment that the date and venue for ‘The Big Day’ have been booked, the clock is running. It’s running for whoever is planning the wedding – whether that’s the couple themselves, or their families, or a professional wedding planner, or a combination of the above – and it’s running for the speakers. How will those speakers use the time?

For me the clock is running too, if I’m going to get this book ready for the publishers on schedule. Back to work!


Public Speaking Nerves? Top Tip from Elvis



“There are only two types of (public) speakers in the world: (1) the nervous and (2) liars.” (Mark Twain)

Are you in Mark Twain’s first group? If so, you might be interested in the pre-show rituals of singers as a source of warmup tips. There are many good examples but my favourite was Elvis Presley and his famous ‘1000-yard walk’.

When singing at a large venue such as an arena, he would insist that his trailer was parked exactly 1000 yards from the stage. Why he did that, and how his idea could be adapted, are questions worth studying by performers of any kind, including speakers, who have to give of their best at a predetermined time and place.

Performance anxiety: even felt by performers who chose the life

It’s a known fact that many people fear public speaking. It is often done by people who don’t enjoy it but have to do it anyway: it might be a necessary part of their job, the might be the father of the bride, etc, etc. These reluctant speakers might logically assume that ‘all those other types of performers’ are doing what they do by choice, therefore will not be affected by nerves. That is very far from the truth; one hears many stories of famous actors and musicians throwing up in the wings before a performance.

Popular singers: Noel Coward was right

I’m focusing on musicians and I’ve looked at what they do to relax and get in the right mood before a show. I choose popular (rather than classical / opera) singers first, because (a) they are so high-profile we know the most about every detail of their lives; and (b) Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is.”

Some of the examples I’ve discovered involve alcohol. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac apparently favours a shot of tequila; and Leonard Cohen used to suffer so badly from stage fright that he couldn’t go on without first downing two bottles of wine. That’s been severely moderated, I’m told, to one whisky. Probably a large one.

A non-booze solution comes from Chris Martin of Coldplay. He apparently brushes his teeth at the last minute, saying “I don’t feel smart if my teeth aren’t clean.” My daughter Madeleine, an actor and singer, tells me that it makes sense from a physical as well as a psychological standpoint, because it can help disperse any excess mucus in the mouth and throat.

Most surprisingly, the booze group did not include Robert Plant, the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin. His unique voice was described thus by Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Exaggerating the vocal style and expressive palette of blues singers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Plant created the sound that has defined much hard rock and heavy metal singing: a high range, an abundance of distortion, loud volume and emotional excess.”


The owner of that voice, in his dressing-room before a performance, used to drink mugs of tea while ironing his stage clothes. “It gets me in the mood”, he said. Not very rock ‘n roll; but it clearly worked for him.

Elvis’s 1000-yard walk: the reason why

Perhaps the greatest idea, because it doesn’t require a dressing-room or a high alcohol tolerance, comes from Elvis Presley. I imagine that the atmosphere just before one of his shows was pretty hectic, with all the folderol that goes with a world-famous performer and an audience of thousands, including a large entourage. As I said at the top of this piece, when singing at a large venue he would insist that his trailer was parked exactly 1000 yards from the stage.

So what was the purpose of that walk? It was so that he could use the last few minutes before performing as a chance to get his head ‘in the zone’. No interactions, no conversation. Just a solitary walk of just over half a mile.

(Solitary? OK, he was probably surrounded by a phalanx of security men; but I’m sure they were under instructions not to talk to him.)

By the way, I am neither a believer nor a journalist for a tabloid. If I were either of those things I might claim that this pre-show routine gave Elvis the idea of recording the gospel song ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’, which he did several times. I don’t think the idea has any basis in fact, which doesn’t prevent it being a good story. “Too good to check”, as the journalists might say.

“Walk around the block”

How to adapt Elvis’s technique for those of us who don’t have a trailer and a large entourage? My advice was as follows: You don’t have a trailer? No problem. Go for a walk around the block. Arrive early, ensure things are set up as you need, ensure you’ve got water available for when you speak (preferably from a glass; but a plastic bottle is better than nothing), then go for a walk around the block.

If you still have time, go round the block again.

And if you don’t like Elvis, or his wonderful 1000-yard walk idea, my suggestion is to choose a musician you do admire, find out what rituals he or she uses to relax and control nerves, and copy them. I’m sure that your role-model would be pleased if they ever found out, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Napping … the celebrity fans, the benefits, the practicalities



“Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness,

And give it way. I know thou canst not choose.”

(Prospero to Miranda. The Tempest, William Shakespeare)


If you’re a Shakespeare buff, you might think the magician Prospero was casting one of his spells when urging his daughter to yield to a feeling of daytime drowsiness. I prefer to think he was introducing her to the benefits of a voluntary afternoon nap; and that Shakespeare himself was one of napping’s early fans. I’m a fan too; and my elder daughter, a doctor frequently working nights, thanks me for bequeathing her the ability to nap. My younger daughter, an actor, once played the above-mentioned Miranda on the stage of the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford, in Return to the Forbidden Planet, a musical based on The Tempest. All in all, therefore, it was inevitable that I should become an advocate of napping.

Famous people who’ve advocated napping are legion. On my side of the Atlantic, Sir Winston Churchill was my favourite exponent, writing:

“Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

… and in the Cabinet War Rooms, Britain’s wartime nerve-centre under Horse Guards Parade , you can see the bed in which he slept for an hour every afternoon during WWII. A routine he’d learned in his twenties served him well.

A later British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was famous for sleeping only three or four hours during the night. What is less well known is that she “did not like to be disturbed around 3pm”.

Famous American nappers include former US Presidents JFK, LBJ, Reagan and Clinton; and General Stonewall Jackson.

And among military leaders, last but definitely not least in my list is one of the most famous nappers of all: Napoleon. He could apparently nap just before – and even during – a battle.

Why nap?

Many studies endorse Churchill’s statement. Napping has been shown to boost creativity, mood and productivity; and a one-hour nap improves alertness for up to ten hours.

Napping also reduces stress; and it’s recently been found that it reduces blood pressure, a subject on which I’ve recently blogged. Both effects reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, diabetes and excessive weight gain. A University of Düsseldorf study found the onset of daytime sleep had memory benefits that remain effective even after naps of only a few minutes.

Enlightened employers now recognise the benefits.

When to nap?

It depends on your schedule and your ‘chronotype’ i.e. whether you are a lark or an owl. In general, sometime between 1pm and 3pm is a period of maximum drowsiness for most people – irrespective of climate and of whether or not they’ve eaten; but we can be more precise thanks to a ‘nap wheel’ developed by sleep scientist Sara Mednick. It predicts that if you wake at seven, for example, the optimum time to nap would be around 2pm.

For how long?

It’s a case of ‘horses for courses.’ US science writer Jennifer Ackerman summarised:

  • A 20-minute snooze can enhance alertness
  • Limit the nap to 45 minutes if you need to spring into action on waking
  • A 60-minute nap improves alertness for 10 hours
  • Naps of 90-120 minutes encompass all stages of sleep and help clear the mind

A full sleep cycle typically lasts 90 – 100 minutes; two stages of light sleep, two of deep sleep, then an REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) stage.

Waking from deep sleep (Stages 3 and 4) after 45-90 minutes can lead to sleep inertia. But after a nap including a full sleep cycle of 90-100 minutes, you wake refreshed from REM sleep.

Power naps and NASA

Not long ago, the US’s National Transportation Safety Board called for ‘controlled naps’ to be built into night shifts. Referring to a 1995 study from NASA, which he co-authored, NTSB member and fatigue expert Mark Rosekind said that a 26-minute nap would improve performance by 34% and alertness by 54%.

Some experts, however, feel 26 minutes is too long for a genuine ‘power-nap,’ as it risks going into deeper sleep. Naps of twenty minutes or less are mostly of light sleep; waking then, you’re more likely to feel refreshed.

Interrupted naps, scheduled naps

One of the most universal benefits is the effect on memory. Harvard Medical School research found that napping, especially if including REM sleep, was an effective tool for improving memory and learning ability.

Even better, you may get the benefits even if your nap is interrupted. A 2008 study showed that the onset of sleep may trigger active memory processes that remain effective even if sleep is limited to only a few minutes.

Even knowing that a nap is coming can actually reduce blood pressure, it is claimed; so simply scheduling a nap is a worthwhile stress-relief strategy.

The practicalities

Minimise noise and light, of course; and keep warm. (I personally can’t fall asleep if my feet are cold.)

Lie down: you’ll take 50% longer to fall asleep in a sitting position.

Finally, clear the mind of ‘chatter’ by focusing on your breathing. Learning to relax muscle-groups in turn, or meditation or visualisation techniques, can be helpful.

The conclusions

Churchill and JFK probably didn’t know much about sleep science; they just did what they knew worked for them. We’re not all national leaders, so we might face resistance. The solution: work for an enlightened employer – or for yourself – then find for yourself the benefits of an afternoon nap.


Want to know more?

Sara Mednick’s Nap Wheel:

‘The NASA Nap’:

Jennifer Ackerman: