There are a few things that people are always surprised to find out about me.
First, I haven’t read many classic works of literature despite being awarded a doctorate in literary studies.
Second, I was the editor of the Cactus and Succulent Society of Queensland’s magazine for a decade.
Third, I have an abiding fear of public speaking.
It’s this third fact that makes people look at me most strangely. They say, “But don’t you have a job that means you’re having to do public speaking all the time?”, or “Aren’t you used to it by now?”.
These are good questions.
I do have a job that requires me to get up and talk in front of people all the time. I conduct workshops and seminars, present conference papers and facilitate panels, and give keynote addresses.
And, almost every single time, I range from being moderately anxious to white-knuckled-3am-staring-at-the-ceiling panic.
If you don’t believe me, just ask my partner. He can’t quite believe it either, the fact that I still manage to work myself up into panic attacks and insomnia when I’ve been doing this as my ‘day-job’ for about 15 years. I’ve overthought this area so much that I’ve written several blogposts about its processes: How to chair, how to handle Question Time, and building your conference karma.
Having said that, my preparation for public speaking gigs has changed remarkably over the years, even if my feelings about them haven’t.
Picture this: My first international conference paper. At Auckland University, New Zealand. 1996.
I wrote the entire paper a full 6 weeks out (and I’m in the humanities, where you’re not expected to hand over a full paper before the conference). I practiced that sucker for a full fortnight before the conference. Every single day, I read through the paper. By the time it came to give it, I had almost completely memorised it. But that didn’t stop me taking the entire 2000 word paper to the podium and clutching it for dear life as I delivered my talk as rapidly as I could, staring intently at the pages and only occasionally at the audience.
Contrast that with my most recent keynote gig: It was at this year’s #ResBaz conference at the University of Melbourne where I was the ‘key-story’ for the third and final day.
I prepped my notes the day before. I practiced what I’d say in dribs and drabs that evening and on the train into the city on the day of the presentation. I ended up not even feeling like I should have my notes before me (all those other key-story people in the #ResBaz stable were totally note-less, paper-less, fabulous – they didn’t even seem to need coffee!). The power cut out while I was in the middle of the talk, and I ran over time. I was being videoed and the video would be put on YouTube afterwards.
Despite my over-preparation for my first international paper and my under-preparation for the key-story talk, my feelings about being out in front and talking to an audience in both instances were the same: I was flat-out terrified.
In between, I have run workshops and seminars with a moderate amount of anxiety before each, and my level of anxiety has depended greatly on whether I’m presenting wearing my ‘lecturer in research education & development’ hat, my Research Whisperer hat, or my Asian Australian Studies hat. Being busier overall in life has meant that I have had less time to be anxious, but the intensity of that pre-presentation anxiety has been fairly constant.
I deal with it much better these days. I have strategies to cope, including finding someone to talk to right up till I have to take the stage (harder to do if you’re part of a panel speaking in series, but good for pre-keynote jitters), and practicing using notes and theme prompts rather than a full paper (that I feel compelled to memorise). If I’d read and abided by the tips in this Psychology Today article on reducing fear of public speaking (or similar) from the beginning of my career I’d probably be more chilled about the whole process. Probably.
As we know, however, these personal contortions we put ourselves through aren’t rational, or easily ‘fixed’.
One of the things I’ve found most useful when trying to conquer presentation nerves is to think of the audience.
This works because it takes the focus away from me and the myriad ways that my talk will turn into the Presentation of Doom. Shifting to this perspective means that my aim becomes ‘how can I be kind to the audience?’.
Weirdly enough, this works brilliantly for me. I think about how the audience has been sitting there all day, listening to panel after panel, or turning up on the third day of a conference ever so slightly hung-over from the conference dinner. What would make them perk up and listen? What can I put on a slide that is relevant, savvy, witty? How should I be pitching my voice and constructing the presentation so that I’m not making them cringe at another paper bogged down in tedium and detail?
Will the audience care if I don’t rehash a lit. review for them? (No.)
Must I gloss Professor X’s work, because everyone else seems to? (No.)
Do I need to prove that I’m totally familiar with All the Discipline’s Theories? (Definitely no.)
Will the audience care if I don’t inform them of the minutiae of syntactical debate around the terms ‘multiculturalism’, Asian Australian, or racial minority? (Most cases, no, but there’ll always be someone who poses the question “So, what do you mean by ASIAN?” >> this happens just about every single time we have an Asian Australian Studies conference and I’ve come to think of it as the question people ask when they don’t have a question…)
I maintain my belief that the work I want to share counts, but whether it’s the greatest paper ever heard is sidelined in favour of what’s the most memorable way I can present it. The way I want people to remember my work and me: fresh, insightful, engaging, strong.
When I focus on the audience’s experience of hearing about my work, it smooths the way for my preparation and its delivery. I’m still anxious, my hands still get shaky, and I need to really work on keeping my voice pitched right, but the process doesn’t paralyse me.
For me, thinking of the audience has helped my presentations come together better and get delivered more effectively. It’s not about me, it’s about you.