This is the longest and least funny of all my posts, but I felt led to share because my dread and avoidance of public speaking held me back socially and professionally for a depressingly long time. I ruled out entire jobs or career tracks if they involved talking to groups of people in any sort of formal way. In undergrad, on the first day of the semester, I would excuse myself to use the restroom so I wouldn’t have to introduce myself to the class. I would have a sick feeling in my tums for weeks leading up to a presentation, and when the time finally came I would just mumble through it as quickly as possible. Finally when I realized I *had* to go to grad school, and in grad school I would *have* to present stuff pretty often, I began to not just suffer through presentations or talks, but actually try to be good at them. It has been a long road full of embarrassing stumbles and inappropriate sweating, but now I’m not bad and kind of enjoy speaking in front of people. So, for those of you who would rather burn off your left pinky toe than speak in front of people, here is some advice from a former public speaking coward just like you.
Care about what you’re saying more than what people think about you When you focus on the best way to convey the info you’re presenting, you stop worrying as much about what you look and sound like. Sometimes it helps to take a step back from your talk and think about what you would want to hear someone else cover if they were giving the same talk. It’s not about you, it’s about the info.
Love your audience, even when they’re ru-ru Empathize with what it’s like to sit and be confused by a rambling speaker. Remember how bored you’ve been, and how it never made you hate or disrespect the speaker. Not once, but *twice* someone has fallen into a deep slumber during one of my presentations. One was an undergrad, but the other was the most prestigious faculty member in my grad program. I won’t lie, it actually made me laugh out loud. Some of the feedback on my talk was, “not sure why Alzheimer’s Disease is funny..” I also had a few sorority girls who used to mean-mug me whenever I taught. I highly recommend that you make a decision to think that sort of stuff is hilarious instead of intimidating, and carry on like your BFFs with everyone in the audience.
Don’t look at people who make you nervous There are some people – my own advisor, actually – who I *cannot* look at while I talk. Some people’s “listening faces” just come across distractingly grumpy, disdainful, bored, angry, etc. Don’t be derailed by accidental RBFs! I suggest looking for those 2-3 ppl who smile bravely and pleasantly throughout your talk, and talk to them.
Don’t plan to be funny This may shock those of you who know my jocular nature, but I **never** plan to crack up my audience. I’m not saying don’t use humor – but 1) if you plan for humor and get very nervous, it usually falls flat and makes you all the more uncomfortable and 2) it’s usually funnier if it’s genuinely in the moment. Trust me – nothing will give your audience the squirmies more than feeling vicarious embarrassment for you after a failed joke.
Practice saying your talk out loud, especially transitions This is an absolute must for me. Even if I can see an image, concept, or info very clearly in my own head (I often organize info in my head as a flow chart, vin diagram, or some other spatial organization), when I start to say it out loud, sometimes I realize it’s *really* difficult to communicate what’s in my head to any human being. One of my sisters is the best at Gallociphering, but most people are lost. So even if you have a great PowerPoint presentation and it all makes sense in your own head, take an hour or two to actually say your talk or presentation out loud. It’s best if you have a friend willing to subject themselves to the torture of listening to your practice. But, it can also work to give your talk to the mirror, or record it on your phone so it you have a bit more pressure to keep from lapsing into “saying” it in your own head. I’m also strangely sensitive to the feel of a room – fluorescent lighting and the smells in nasty old rooms nauseate me when I’m already nervous. So, if possible, try to practice in the same room that you’ll be speaking in. Or at the very least, take a peak and know what the set up will be like.
Don’t write out word for word notes If you don’t have enough time to go through your entire talk, practice saying transitions and main points out loud. What your audience needs the most help with is getting the “take-aways” and drawing the connections between the info you’re presenting. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them, but I’ve found my talks go best when I memorize main points, transitions between slides, and the most complicated or technical concepts and details in my talk. But for the “filler” stuff in your talk, I would leave a little flexibility for yourself to improvise to a certain degree, so you’re not woodenly reading off a script. How much flexibility you give yourself will need to scale with your comfort in public speaking in general. When I first started speaking, I would clam up and go into autopilot, and just rattle through the bare minimum info. But as you get more experience, you’ll become become more comfortable going a little slower, pausing in-between points or slides to make sure you’ve covered everything, or coming up with examples on the fly.
Own your screw ups Sometimes I forget a pertinent piece of info, or a sentence I had smoothly rehearsed comes out as a incoherent jumble of nonsense. In the past this would have mortified me and ruined the rest of my talk. But I’ve learned that it works fine to pause, offer an endearing smile, and say something like, “Let me try that again.” And then carry on.
Visualize success As goofy as it may sound, vividly imagining myself KILLING IT in a talk gives me confidence when I’m actually up there. Whatever you do, don’t imagine yourself failing. You are likely to prophesy your own failure.
Pray Not just for yourself, but for your audience members, too. Especially if they’re going to be evaluating you in some way (e.g. decide whether or not you deserve this job), pray they will be filled with graciousness. Personally, it’s important for me to be anchored in the knowledge that I have access to the most intelligent, powerful being in existence – it reallllly makes those mortal, fallible committee members and undergrads seem much less threatening.
Enjoy it! I used to consider public speaking a miserable ordeal. If anything, I just hoped to survive without dishonoring the family name. But seriously, it’s possible to actually have fun while you speak. Although public speaking DOES have the potential to humiliate you in front of a lot of people, it also has the potential to make you shimmer like a competent diamond in front of a lot of people! Think about how difficult it is to get people’s attention and have influence. Yet for 30 min to an hour, you have a whole room of people’s attention and the opportunity to influence, teach, or convince them of something! Yowza! Don’t waste it 😉