Jerry Seinfeld made a joke once about how profoundly people fear public speaking. I forget the precise set up but it was about a funeral and the punch line rested on the observation that most people are more worried about having to deliver the elegy than they are about being in the coffin.
Fear of public speaking is no joke, but, as someone who absolutely loathes such things (I even hate having to read aloud to a group of people), I have found that there are a couple of strategies for getting over the fear – at least temporarily and at least in certain circumstances.
I say, temporarily and in certain circumstances because the first tip I have in this off-the-cuff blog is all about circumstances – when and why you are speaking in the first place.
A few months after I was accepted to Cambridge, as I was more and more convinced that I wanted to have a career in academia, I realized that I was probably, at some point, going to need to go to one of the gazillion conferences that happen all over the world, hosted by universities and organizations like the Modern Language Association. I also realized, crucially, that I wanted to go to one or more of these conferences and that I had ideas for presentations that might fit one or more of the sessions.
Long story short, I decided to submit a couple of proposals and see what happened. Before I knew where I was, I had three positive responses and thus three conferences to which I was headed as a presenter.
My initial reaction was an oscillation between mild panic and moderate excitement. As an undergraduate/non-traditional student, I felt pretty lucky to have a three presentations lined up on my first try, but I wasn’t naive, I don’t think, about how much work it would take to get ready.
Fortunately, the first of the three conferences was pretty small. It gave me the opportunity to warm up and get the feel of presenting to an audience of academics. I also had quite a bit of time to prepare and a two people – my wonderful HACC mentors – on hand to offer advice and a judgment-free zone to practice! The other two, though, were a different story. The second conference was a state-wide conference, definitely bigger than the first, which was also more niche. The third, SAMLA, was positively huge (SAMLA stands for South Atlantic Modern Languages Association so it was the conference for one of the branches of the MLA).
For someone who doesn’t like public speaking, though, the process of preparing for any conference is difficult, so here are the tips and tricks I’ve learned and applied, which may me helpful to others who, like me, don’t exactly relish the prospect of standing up in front of an audience.
(Note, I’ve never managed to picture the audience in their undergarments, so that’s not something I am going to recommend here, although others, apparently, swear by it!)
My very first suggestion to anyone who doesn’t like public speaking but actually wants to do it is to make sure that they commit to the decision. After I found out my proposals were accepted, after the initial excitement mingled with horror, I was periodically horrified at what I had signed up to do. However, I also got into the habit of telling myself I had, indeed, signed up for it. However nervous I got, it was still my choice to get up there and deliver my paper and that gave me a degree of control I hadn’t really had before when I had to deliver a speech or read something out in class.
My second suggestion is more general, and that is to prepare the heck out of your presentation. You’ve probably heard this before (I’ve certainly read articles that say this about public speaking). There’s no getting around the fact that preparation is absolutely the key to a successful presentation and preparation ways means work.
There’s no point working without a goal, though, so when you start to draft a presentation, it helps to be on point. The more focused you are, the more confident you will feel.
At the last conference I went to, I attended a seminar on public speaking delivered by a drama teacher. One of the first and best pieces of advice he gave about the process was about the very first step of preparation.
He asked the room to consider their very first step when preparing for a presentation.
After a few people threw out some random answers, he said that the first step should always be to answer the question: what it is you want your audience to know by the end of your talk?
Although I’ve yet to have the chance to use this piece of advice directly, I think it is absolutely the starting point that you should always have. Fortunately, I think, most people do have this starting point in mind when they start drafting a paper. You certainly have this mind when you are writing an article, if you have any experience whatsoever. Probably you also have it in mind when writing a paper for school.
When you start to think about this question for public speaking, though, you can start to work out how you need to organize your presentation, which, I think, is the next key step.
Organizing a presentation is different from organizing a piece of writing, though. This is something else that is really important to bear in mind. There is a huge difference between writing a paper that you expect people to read and preparing something that you yourself are going to present to an audience because there are huge differences between the way people read and the way people listen.
Bearing in mind that you have an audience not a reader, you have to tailor your presentation so that it is easy to follow. The average person has a pretty poor attention span. He also don’t retain all that much information unless, by chance, he happens to be an auditory learner.
Since you can’t bank on having good listeners making up your entire your audience, you have to develop a paper that is really focused and easy to follow. That means that you have to think about the key points – say the top three things – that you want your audience to pick up on and remember.
You also have to then write-up your paper so that it is easy to follow. That means, in terms of your vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, that you keep things simple. Keep your sentences short. Harp on about your main points. Use cues to help your reader stay on top of your argument.
People in the humanities also have to learn to keep quotations to a minimum too. This was another piece of advice from the actor professor’s seminar that I definitely took away. He pointed out that people who throw tons of quotations at their audience create a number of problems for themselves. In particular, they make it difficult for people to follow what they are arguing. They also create an opportunity for the audience to lose focus. Even if you put a quote up on a projector or you have it on a handout – especially if you do either of those things – you have just invited your audience to check out and thereby sabotage your presentation.
You have to keep in mind the length of your paper, too, as this is going to affect everything from how you structure your argument to how you use examples. The more time you have, the more you can fit into your presentation but the easier it is to overwhelm your audience.
The length of your presentation – the time allotted to it – also determines the mode of presentation, how you actually present your work on the day. Now, there are pros and cons of reading your paper right off the page but the same can also be said for power points, using bullet points, or even trying to learn your presentation by heart. If you are nervous (and chances are you will be) you run the risk of losing your place or forgetting your lines if you don’t have your whole presentation mapped out in front of you. Personally, I don’t think I would want to redo any of the presentations I did without copies of my speeches on hand. My first three presentations were all supposed to be between 15 and 20 minutes length and there is no way I could have winged it without my script to hand.
As a general rule, I would suggest that if you are speaking for anything more than 5 minutes, even if you can memorize like a champ, you need to have a print copy available just in case.
There is, however, a big difference between having your paper in front of you and being one of those people who reads out in a monotone, head down, eyes fixed. That person is not an effective presenter either.
The good news is that you can still have your paper in front of you and avoid these presentation faux pas. I’m also proud to say that I figured this one out on my own and before my first presentation.
When it comes to printing out your presentation, instead of printing it as you would an essay, laying it out on the page all need, paragraphs perfectly organized, 12pt Times New Roman font, throw convention to the wind and layout your text as if it were a script. Break up the paragraphs. You don’t need them. Blow up the text into a size that is easier to read, such as 14 or 16.
Once you’ve done this, you need to take a pencil or pen and mark it up. Read through the speech and note where you pause or where you can look up at your audience (note, you should try to do this every couple of lines, not only because eye contact is good for you but because it will force you to slow down).
With a marked up script in hand (and a back up copy just in case), you can start practicing your presentation. I would recommend reading it through at least a couple of times before you present. And when I say a couple, I mean at least five or six.
You must also make sure that you are hitting your time. People often get grumble about presentations that run on (as most do) and a presentation that is too short (say, 15 minutes when you had 20), can be something of a missed opportunity. Because you will read faster in front of an audience than you do when you are practicing, make sure that you actually read out your paper before a friend or colleague before hand. Not only can you practice pausing and making eye contract in a relatively neutral environment, but you can also get what is usually a better sense of timing.
The more you practice presenting your speech, the more confident you will be on the day, but here are a couple of last-minute things you can do to boost your confidence. First, if you can, go to the room where you are going to be presenting and take a look around. Find out where you are going to stand. See if there is a podium or a lectern that you can use (note, they can be a great prop when you are nervous). Second, take a few minutes to yourself to breathe and relax. You don’t have to go into a full on meditation, but concentrating on your breath for a couple of minutes before you present is a great way to relax.
Last but not least, always try to enjoy yourself. If you tell yourself on the day that you are going to hate it, you probably will. But if you take charge of that negative self-talk and (see earlier tip) remind yourself that it is something you actually want to do, chances are you will be absolutely fine and you will actually have fun!