Embrace your public speaking anxiety

About a decade ago, I went to a PI during a retreat to ask a question. Nervously, but politely, he asked me to be left alone as he was rather anxious for a talk he was about to deliver.  A few hours later, a PhD student at the time, I was freaking out for my own talk, but it was comforting, in a way, to see that an established scientist I highly regarded and I had considered rather self-confident was in a similar state-of-mind.

Comforting? Why not scary? Would you never get rid of public speaking anxiety? I am no anxiety coach and, for that, browse around. However, I wished to share my own experience as it might be useful for students. I now noticed I am that ‘senior’ scientist at that retreat (or something similar) and that junior colleagues might misunderstand my confident speaking in public as evidence of no-stress, no-shyness, a gift from birth. So, even though your solution might be a different one, here I tell you which was mine.

Be prepared! Be prepared? (take 1)

Trivial, isn’t it? I am not going to give practical suggestions here, except set yourself comfortable deadlines. With experience, you will be able to work on a talk until a few minutes before delivery, but earlier in carrier, you have to prepare all your material far in advance. However, even very experienced academics and businessmen when facing more unique scenarios work hard to prep a meeting and give this enough time and resources.

Be prepared! Be prepared? (take 2)

Perhaps, the most difficult thing you might find, it is to commit to a deadline, after which you have to be ready. But, here the challenging bit, even if you feel still unprepared (and some people may never be able to shred off that feeling) or if you are actually unprepared because you miscalculated something, you have anyway to commit to the next difficult bit, be mentally and physically prepared, something you might be completing neglecting. Deadlines are deadlines and the starting time of your talk is unmovable. Therefore, start to mature a process and to understand how long you need to be ready before a talk. Some people is a natural and need no or little preparation. Other people need time: never underestimate how long time you need. Most of my following comments are about this stage of preparation. The bottom line, when the deadline strikes, be sure you are ready and if you are not, do not allow doubts to undermine the next phase of preparation.

Commit physically: water and energy

During a stressful moment, your physiology will be heavily altered and you might lose control. So, think how not to. Personally, before a talk I try to drink lots of water to ensure I will be properly hydrated, and I also make sure I have water available during the talk. Once I didn’t, and I was not well. I coughed though all my talk and it was not a very ideal situation. Also, be sure you have energy, so a bar of chocolate or a juice, can help. Ah… ok, is this obvious?… pay attention – water in > water out. As basic as it seems, be sure you went to the toilet at the latest opportunity before the event. You do not want to be dehydrated, but even not to be distracted by your bladder while on stage.

Mind you that this is even more true when you have very long days, such as more articulated interviews or conference commitments.

Commit physically: oxygen

Breathing, for me, is the next most important issue. You might find yourself in need of oxygen after a few slides and attempting to do the world record in apnoea while speaking in public. You could pass through an entire 20 minutes presentation incapable to breath properly, increasing your level of anxiety at each slide. You are in front of an audience, it could be two people at an interview, or a thousand people in a theatre, if not a million in TV. However, giving a good breath permitting your lungs to be completely emptied and filled with fresh air takes a few seconds. This can be easily concealed in a transition between two slides, or during a question. And… if you cannot conceal it… do it anyway, 5 seconds spent silently breathing properly will be immediately forgotten by your audience, but a poorly delivered 20 minutes talk will be remembered.

Once again, get ready for it. First of all reflect on your breathing habits, far away from a talk. If you give enough thoughts about the issue, whenever you will struggle, a mental trigger will snap and make you aware of the occurring issue for you to take action. More importantly, if issues in breathing are recurrent for you, just do exercises in the 5 minutes preceding your talk. Breath in deeply and breath out slowly. This will decrease your anxiety and will prepare your breathing for the talk. You can do it while seating in the audience or even while speaking with others.

Commit physically: avoid distractions

Personally, I have a routine. Before a talk, I remove everything from my pockets, or even the badge, anything superfluous. After a few talks delivered with my pockets inside-out dangling from my trousers, I also double-check that I am generally presentable! So, on stage or seating in front of a panel, I have no distractions from the badge hitting the microphone, the phone vibrating, the keys stuck in my thigh. Well, the phone: switch it off well in advance of your talk and dump everything in you bag.

Commit mentally: have fun

Those were a few suggestions, and more or different tricks will work for you, to ensure your physical state will be ready to support the potential stress you might experience while speaking in public. Of course, your state of mind will play an equally important role. Perhaps, I should advise to not care, to convince yourself that the event you are preparing does not matter. This is probably key, more in general, to achieve the resilience necessary in the academic world. For me that does not work very well, as I tend to be heavily invested in everything I do. So, what it works for me is to repeat myself I need to have fun speaking about science, my work, or the work of others – otherwise is really not worth. A bit of self-couching targeted to focus your mood towards excitement, how great can be to speak or debate science.

I did receive my dose of criticisms in my career, but let me tell you which is one of the best compliment I ever got. Do you remember the talk I was freaking out during my PhD? Well, after my talk, which might not have been even an excellent one, I overheard the head of a department advising two junior PIs to speak with the energy and enthusiasm I was speaking with. I guess you should remind yourself of how exciting the work you do is and if you disagree with this, change job or lie to yourself for a couple of hours.

Commit mentally: focus

You would not run the athletics world final 100m, physically unprepared and with no excitement. You would also not run it thinking about random stuff or worrying not to win it. Watch athletes on their blocks, the intensity of their eyes, the deep focus they concentrate on the start gun and those few seconds after. Focusing might take a fraction of a second if you were a natural or simply experienced. Also, keep your focus during the talk, try to nurture that unconscious little voice that can warn you everytime you are going off-track.

The top right-hand corner syndrome (TRiHCS) is a risky issue in our business. TRiHCS happen when your mind wonders off, but you keep speaking. TRiHCS happen when you zone out and speak for 2 minutes about an irrelevant detail being fixated on a corner of a room, while you are not engaging with the audience and perhaps even with the main topic of the talk. If you get TRiHCSed, your timing and narrative will derail. But, do not worry, if you notice it in time, you can easily recover.

OK, ok… TRiHCS? I just made this up, but I promise you, it is something that does happen!

Look after yourself…

Pay attention to yourself. It is easy to get anxiety compromise your health in the long term, or your performance in the short term. In an ideal world, you can sleep, eat, drink, meditate as a Yogi. In the real world, assaulted by too many things to do, it is likely you will experience periods of stress and long hours. However, you will have to know your limits and try to stay far from the edge and arrive to an event in good physical and mental conditions. Your institution and funders will offer you a provision of well-being courses, advice and activities. However, your institution and funders will implicitly ask you to neglect completely their own advice and deliver huge returns for them at any cost (for you). Like for any job, the day will come that you cannot run any longer over the edge. Then, manage anxiety, either it is just for public speaking, or for anything else… embrace it, as in ‘do not ignore it’, ‘do not fight it’ as it fights back, but manage it and if you can’t, ask for help.

Look after yourself… plan your cool-off stage

I did some crazy things aiming to present data still warm from the microscope (yes, it is a thing if you use high power lasers), consciously cutting sleeping times down (within reason) and working over the edge. Even if you do not, but public speaking really takes a toll on you, look after yourself after the main event. You need to consider two phases. One, which might be short or very long, depending on the event, is the immediate aftermath. I used to be a runner, and I used to give everything until the end of the race, which made it very likely for me to fall on the ground exhausted after the line… but you learn to immediately stand-up, walk, then do a run at slow space and hydrate.

Somehow, after a peak of stress you need to do something similar, often quietly and in public. This may have to happen in a few seconds before taking further questions. So, regain mental and physical composure, re-gather your focus and energy, again consider drinking water or a juice.  You will need this, particularly, in a day-long event full of meetings. It can really take just one minute, but if you do not do it, you might crash and underperform in the aftermath of a public speaking event. Do not underestimate the task you will have to follow after the main event and the energy you will need for them.

Then, at last, all is over. Really look after yourself because if the event you prepared took really a lot of energy from you, there might be consequences. You will discover what is best for you, if to completely relax and instruct yourself, or to simply take it easy for a few hours or a few days.

Conclusions

Keep in mind that what I have written here it is not an expert-opinion, but a personal experience. My suggestion to embrace your public speaking anxiety comes from trying to advise junior colleagues and realizing I did not wish to give the same suggestion a GP once gave to me: ‘you should avoid stress’. This is the wrong suggestion, in my opinion, as most of us, certainly in the ultra-competitive academic world, will have to manage plenty of stressful situation. Thus, the keyword is ‘manage’ not ‘avoid’, be the master or mistress of your stress-responses and, yes, avoid only those things that might push you too far beyond what you can manage. So, embrace your public anxiety speaking, mould your response to it in time and you will eventually grow out of it, or if not, at least you will manage.

Of course, whatever I described here is not something I usually think about, even during big talks. I made an effort to catalogue the various ‘tricks’ I – sometimes unconsciously -matured in 15 years of presenting scientific work in public. But recently, I had noticed that – either as a natural predisposition or by training – delivering a talk is more than just speaking in public. It is a process that requires physical and psychological strengths, like an actor preparing for a play or an athlete for a race. Scientists, noticing it or not, need to nurture these strengths, even not for their audience, but at least for looking after their health.

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Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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