We all have to present our work to others at some point in our graduate careers, and this commitment to public speaking can lead to real anxiety for some individuals. I know this because I am in that group. I have been so anxious before a 12 minute talk that my hands actually went numb from the terror, my pulse started racing, and I ended up speaking so fast that my 12 minute talk became 9 minutes, tops. That leaves a lot of room for awkward silence.
So how do we learn to manage our public speaking anxiety? Some would suggest simple hacks: use confident body language, speak slowly and in a deeper tone, or my least favorite “picture your audience in their underwear,” which is most definitely the LAST thing I want to think about during a talk. While these hacks can be helpful for people with minor issues they are by no means sufficient if you are experiencing serious anxiety prior to public speaking events.
You might have public speaking or performance anxiety if you have experienced any of the following before giving a talk:
- clammy hands
- rapid heart rate
- shortness of breath
- muscle tension,
- confusion or losing your train of thought
- upset stomach
- shaky voice
At this point I think just about everyone can say yes to experiencing at least one of these prior to public speaking. Thankfully, since my numb-hands-speedtalk days I’ve learned some new ways to manage public speaking anxiety.
Know your stuff: This is the most important part for dealing with anxiety related to graduate level and professional presentations. Minor hacks such as puffing up like a fish to project confidence and lowering your voice will not help you if you don’t know the material. This happens to me on a regular basis: I do just fine presenting my own work (which I know) but the moment I have to present for journal club (where one student reviews a recently published paper in depth in front the of the department) I start getting anxious because I am presenting work I am unfamiliar with.
Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to go over your talk before hand. One trick that has helped me immensely is to structure my slides so that the end of each slide leads directly to the next. By building in and practicing transitions you are much less likely to get lost, and your audience will appreciate having a cohesive narrative in your talk.
Notes aren’t just for class: Even when you know your project inside and out it is still good to have some form of notes on hand–whether it is a general outline of your talk, important sources and citations, or specific technical details of experiments. You can do this the old fashioned way and have printed notes, but I recommend becoming familiar with the joy that is presenter view on Powerpoint. If you don’t know how to use it I highly recommend this approach as it allows you to have your notes for each slide displayed for you, but not your audience. However, not all presentation venues are set up for presenter view (a lot of conferences are like this, unfortunately) so keep a hard copy of your notes handy just in case.
Get (non-threatening) feedback: Next time you have a big anxiety-inducing speaking event coming up (thesis defense, anyone?) try running through your presentation for a small group of fellow students, professors, and other coworkers and get their feedback afterwards. This is an enlightening experience as sometimes what you are the most worried about no one notices, or you find out that you have a distracting tic that you never noticed.
Managing the anxiety response: Sometimes no amount of preparation can prevent your innate flight response when faced with public speaking. If you can’t stop your innate responses you can learn to manage them. Your audience has no idea your hands are numb, and no matter how bad the talk goes you will not be chased down with pitchforks.
When you feel yourself starting to get anxious remember that these feelings, while very much real, do not mean that you cannot give a great talk. The trick is learning to be separate from your anxiety by acknowledging it and allowing yourself to have that feeling, then deciding that even with the feeling you can move forward. It can take some practice learning how not to be overwhelmed by these feelings, but eventually you will be able to acknowledge them and move past them in order to accomplish your goal of giving a good presentation.