If the thought of speaking in front of an audience makes you nervous, it may not surprise you that many people list public speaking as one of their top fears. For some of my clients and former students, it is their number 1 fear. So where does this leave academics? Many professors and TAs experience anxiety before lectures, and some are particularly panicked at the thought of speaking in those large lecture halls so common in undergraduate courses today. And then there is conference season: weeks, and sometimes months of conventions, symposia and meetings that new and experienced scholars must participate in if they want to stay current in their fields. So what is an anxious academic to do? Here are three tips for academic presenters to help them communicate more effectively and, hopefully, to minimise the emotional and mental turmoil that sometimes accompanies the public presentation of their work.
Practice, practice, practice!
This is the cardinal rule for developing excellent public speaking skills. Understand that there are very few, if any, people who are so-called natural public speaking experts. Yes, public speaking is an art — a seemingly ebullient and sometimes spontaneous expression of creativity and skill — but it is also a science; excellent public speaking habits can be practiced and learned. For example, you can learn how to speak more slowly and how to enunciate your words carefully so that your audience does not have to struggle to understand what you are saying. You can also practice how to be aware of your body language. Do you tap your foot at the podium? Do you slouch when you stand? What happens to your hands when you are speaking? Performance quirks, like foot tapping, slouching, and excessive gesturing can distract your audience. Being aware of what your performance quirks are is the first step to managing them.
You can also practice ways of engaging with your audience, such as by making eye contact, so that you involve them in what you are doing. And you can practice and master the skill of presentation editing, to know how much and how little to give your audience, so that they are not overwhelmed by data and graphics or underwhelmed by the absence of necessary detail. There is no quick fix. Consistent practice will help you to identify your strengths and those areas that need additional work. And it will help you to develop the skills needed to excel at this sometimes onerous but unavoidable part of academic life.
I recommend working with a colleague. It may be someone in your department, but it doesn’t have to be. Find someone — or better yet, a group of people —who will listen to you and give you honest, clear and productive feedback about what works and what doesn’t. If you know people who excel at public speaking, why not ask them to attend one of your practice sessions? Working with academic colleagues may be particularly helpful since the norms and expectations at academic conferences differ from those in non-academic settings. However, many people can give you constructive feedback on universal public speaking variables, such as body language and speech techniques.
People who are confident about what they are saying are more likely to inspire confidence through their messages. You likely already know this. But what is an anxiety-ridden academic to do? The answer is simple, and yes, clichéd. Fake it. Fake it until you don’t need to fake it any more, or at least until it is not so onerous to do so. In my experience, (and from the audience’s perspective), confident speakers have certain characteristics in common. The most visible signs of speaker confidence are: they speak authoritatively, but not aggressively; their body language is controlled and their posture is self-assured; they are masters of their message (i.e., there is often a pleasing balance of spoken language, text and graphics in the presentation itself, and the message is delivered with authority and dexterity); they handle unscripted moments with poise; and they are attuned and responsive to changing audience dynamics.
In other words, see tip (i), above: practice, practice, practice! Learn about your presentation tics and aim to positively modify your stage presence. Practice your presentation text as many times as necessary before the actual presentation day, and try to devise scenarios that may interrupt your flow, and practice dealing with them. You will never foresee all possible scenarios, but at least you will have had practice in expecting the unexpected, and in dealing with an interrupted presentation. Over time, these practices may alleviate some of your anxiety. It is useful to remember, however, that your presentation is a performance and you are the leading actor. Just because a speaker appears to be confident, it doesn’t mean that they actually are. And that’s okay. You may never totally rid yourself of presentation anxiety, but at least you can get it under control and not have it control you for the duration of your academic career.
Many scholars have spent years devoted to a single theme or topic that a small number of other academics in their own disciplinary field (and perhaps a miniscule number in other fields) will readily understand. Even if your conference is in your disciplinary field (i.e., not a cross-disciplinary meeting) the chance that everyone in your audience will have prior knowledge of your topic and will automatically understand the intricacies of your approach is extremely low. The way that you build your presentation must take into account that not everyone in your audience is already an expert. Sometimes, as is the case in pioneering and cutting-edge research, you are the only expert. So don’t take that journal article that you are writing and read it to your audience. An audience’s capacity for meaning from oral messages is lower that its capacity for meaning if they were reading the same text as a written document. You might have made 3 complex points in the journal article, but for your presentation, one point, or even just a few aspects of one point, is more than enough content. Your aim with a presentation is not to exhaustively deliberate all the salient features and problems associated with your topic; it is to initiate discussion that begins in the presentation room and will likely continue long after you leave the podium. If you alienate your audience, rich conversation and potentially bountiful networking opportunities are less likely to happen. Stick with something small and deliver it in a way that your audience will understand, using less jargon than you would in a written medium. Don’t use many long, complex sentences, as these are difficult to follow in speech. And do use a lighter, more free-flowing tone than you would normally use in a written text. This will not compromise the integrity of your research but it will allow your audience to follow, and hopefully engage with, your presentation.
And above all, remember the cardinal rule: practice, practice, practice!