You have to give a public talk and you are crapping your pants thinking about it. Good. If you aren’t a little nervous then you’re a robot and dead inside. But you don’t want to be too nervous. So how can you shake your fear of public speaking? Here are some tips.
(1) Even if you are nervous, try not to let it show
Have you ever watched a regular schlub get interviewed by Oprah and wondered - how come they look so calm? Well most people will not appear nervous unless they are shaking with fear, stammering, or saying “um….um” a lot. So be comforted by the thought that most people won’t notice your nervousness, they are just there to listen to your presentation. Most people will look at the screen while you talk, not you; even more reason not to let your nerves get to you.
(2) You’ve done scarier things than talk to a room full of quiet people
That time you asked a girl you liked out. That time you had that operation. That time you jumped out of a plane. If you haven’t done anything scarier than talk to a bunch of attentive scholars than you aren’t living life the right way. This talk isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Calm down knucklehead. Save the nerves for when you go deep-sea diving in a leaky bathysphere.
Alternatively, take on an alternative persona. Act like someone more confident than you who has nerves of steal, soon enough the act will become the real deal.
(3) Be chatty pre-presentation
Before you go up to give your talk, strike up a conversation with someone near you. If you are just sitting there thinking about your talk you will risk getting more and more nervous. Talking to someone will distract you. However, if you are at a conference and someone else is speaking it would be rude to talk. In that case think about what question you might ask about the talk you are watching. Go ahead and ask it during the question period. This too will get your mind off your own presentation. Any distraction that will keep you from working yourself up into a tizzy is fine.
(4) Think about the first line you are going to say
Don’t psyche yourself out. If you must think about your talk just focus on the first line you are going to say: “Thank you for coming today, I’ll be talking about frog AIDS.” The rest will come easy after that.
If you are going to be nervous for your talk don’t start the talk with a joke. These almost never work. If you tell it and it bombs you will be even more nervous. If you have a joke for later in the talk fine, just don’t lead with it, unless you are sure you can pull it off. If you are confident enough to do that you probably don’t need to read this post.
(5) Did you just mess up?
Don’t sweat it. If you blanked for a second, or you said something that was meant for another slide, don’t say, “I’m really sorry everyone” or “shoot, damn it Bobby, get it together” or anything that will accentuate your error. Don’t apologize or chastise yourself, just move on, believe me, no one noticed. If you need to stop for a second, take a sip of water and move on.
(6) End with a thank you
If you end your talk, as many people do with “and I’ll take any question you might have,” you aren’t giving your audience an opportunity to clap for you. It’s awkward. Just end with “thank you” after your conclusions or acknowledgments. That “thank you” lets the audience know you are done, and you can have your applause.
(7) The question period
Time to get nervous again. Don’t panic. People are generally pretty kind during this period, they are here to help you and better understand the topic, not to make you look foolish. Call on someone, listen to the complete question, then answer as best you can. If you don’t know the answer or don’t understand the question, just say “I’m not sure about that, let me get back to you; perhaps we can chat more about it later.” It’s okay not to know everything. Just do your best.
(8) Practice. Practice. Practice.
Don’t want to be nervous? Then be prepared. If you know why you have each slide up there and what key points you want to make then you’re golden. If it helps you, have a printout of the slides (multiple per page so your not flipping every two seconds) with notes on the key points you want to deliver. (Or use the speaker notes in Powerpoint or KeyNote.) DO NOT READ FROM A SCRIPT! Nothing is more off putting than listening to someone read from a handout. You are not a politician, you are talking about your research, no one knows this stuff better than you. So be cool fool, and just do your best.