Public Speaking Tips for the Socially Anxious 

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 😉

I wish you all a life of discomfort and unease

If you are never uncomfortable, your body and soul will shrivel.

img_20161101_194452

I used to spend a large portion of my life avoiding situations and people who made me feel uncomfortable. For a while I was pretty successful, but I also succeeded at crafting a blank life. Now I don’t exactly enjoy the discomfort, but I accept it. My sage #gallowadvice to you all is to stop avoiding uncomfortable situations. If you are never uncomfortable, your body and soul will shrivel. Here are some examples from my own life.

Strength Training / Running

My body prefers to sit on a soft cushiony couch, in air conditioning. On the other hand, running until I feel like my heart is going to explode or lifting a weight even when my muscles are shaking is suck-y. But it makes me better. It enables me to do the things I really enjoy, like hiking. It helps me help other people, like by helping a friend move. It helps me live longer so I can continue blessing the world with my existence, like by writing brilliant nonsense for 10 people to enjoy each week. Exercise is uncomfortable, but it is confidence boosting, gives me more energy, opens up new opportunities for me to enjoy life, and keeps me around longer (lucky you). Most importantly, it makes me a sleek tigress.

Public Speaking

My anxiety around public speaking used to be really, really severe. When I was in college and the professor of a class wanted us to go around the room and introduce ourselves, I would hide in the bathroom until I was sure enough time had passed that we would have moved on to a different activity. Even now, I get pretty worked up about any speaking engagement, whether it’s to a group of five faculty or giving a guest lecture to 150 bored undergrads. I sweat, listen to Eye of the Tiger, and do push-ups in my office to use up my wild nervous energy. Yet, almost every speaking engagement I’ve had in the past 3 years or so has been really successful. Presentations on my research are good for my career. Leading a discussion or giving a lecture can be confidence boosting. My audiences almost always give me overwhelmingly positive feedback. And sometimes, my presentations are required so that I can check a box and move that much closer to graduation. Public speaking is uncomfortable, but has preceded pretty much every accomplishment or noteworthy success in the past 6 years of my life.

Being friends with leftists

Look y’all, I wish I had the luxury of believing that everyone who disagreed with me was either evil, an idiot, or both. But I don’t. I know super intelligent, kind people – even people who share the same faith as me – who have radically different views on how government should work and what policies promote human flourishing. Knowing this forces me to revisit my own hard-set beliefs, think more deeply about how I came to that conclusion, and identify the assumptions my reasoning is based on – and evaluate whether those are correct or not. It’s irritating. But it’s helped me refine what I believe and become better able to communicate with people who don’t share the same underlying assumptions about life as I do. Being friends with leftists is uncomfortable, but it sharpens me.

Being a Christian in academia

Along the same lines, being a person who believes there is a supernatural reality while pursuing a career in a field that limits reality to whatever is material, observable, and generally repeatable is.. awkward. It has forced me to think about really difficult questions about my faith, from broadly abstract and philosophical to narrowly applied and practical. Sometimes I wish I could live in a community in which everyone has the same baseline assumptions about how the world works, why we’re here, and what comprises reality. But I think that would make me intellectually and spiritually complacent, and I never would have been motivated to seek out answers to really irritating and scary questions. Being a Christian in academia is uncomfortable, but it has actually strengthened my faith overall to know it can hold up under fire.

Having friends and family

People ask things of me. They disrupt my schedule. They want me to eat foods I wouldn’t normally eat at times I wouldn’t normally want to eat. They hurt my feels. They drain my energy, especially when they are going through rough times. They take up my precious time. But a life without those inconveniences is.. empty. Making sacrifices for my friends and family can be uncomfortable, but my friends and family are my support, a large part of my purpose in life, and a large source of my lolz.

**SURPRISE TWIST**

I also hope that I make you uncomfortable. Why? Because in the hyper-offendable culture of the present day, the only  way you can possibly avoid making someone uncomfortable is to stop saying or doing anything. I used to add “of importance,” but people actually get worked up about this blog sometimes, y’all. Thus proving that even the nonsensical of all nonsense can rub someone the wrong way. Not that I go out of my way to offend people, but I also will not delete posts that I believe in (yes, I “believe” even in the silly ones). Doing and saying things makes people uncomfortable, but doing and saying stuff – especially of importance – is worth enduring a little push back.

So my darling readers, I urge you to review your life and notice how discomfort and struggle are the annoying but necessary parents to success, action, depth, and joy. And now with a tear in my eye and love in my heart — I wish you all moderate discomfort, today and forevermore.  ❤