Tips for reducing talk anxiety (part 1)

This is part of a series of articles on the blog (a few already published, more in the works) devoted to didactics and the communication of science (and other things). I am currently working on a handbook that includes ideas such as these and explores in depth the myriad problems of presenting content. More pieces to come on that.

The tips given here are related to performance anxiety and represent just a sample of things I’ve learned from my own excellent teachers, from my experience in training lots of scientists and other types of speakers, from my own experiences in public speaking, and from the process by which I completely eliminated my own stage fright when performing as a musician (yes, it’s possible – and that’s when the fun and the real music begin!). In the courses I give we always find a way to adapt these principles to individuals and their problems.

Please help me by contributing your own experiences and tips, so we can build a useful, very practical resource that will help as many students and teachers as possible! I will add your points to the list and mention their sources!

The first step in learning is to identify any barriers that exist – to define the problem as clearly as possible. So it’s crucial to carry out some self-exploration: you need to carefully study your own body in situations of fear, anxiety and stress.

These mental and physical techniques require practice, and they work best if you imagine yourself as concretely as possible in the environment you will face when giving a talk. Visualise the room – ideally, visit it ahead of time, and maybe go to another talk there. Sit toward the back and listen. If you can’t visit the room, then imagine various scenarios: a large classroom, an intimate seminar room, a packed auditorium, an almost empty auditorium.

Next close your eyes and imagine the moment before you are invited to speak. Imagine someone getting up and introducing you; you’re sitting there and will be headed onstage in 30 seconds. Find out if possible whether you will be standing or sitting down; imagine the size of the audience you will be facing, mentally prepare for a moment where the beamer doesn’t work and needs to be fiddled with, if the microphone suddenly doesn’t work, etc. Have some strategy for “vamping” the time, with a joke or some other device that engages the audience. (“While we’re waiting, I’d like to conduct an informal survey about a question of tremendous scientific relevance: Where does that stuff in your belly button come from, anyway?” There’s actually a very interesting study out about this… )

  1. Nervousness is usually accompanied by various physiological and mental symptoms, and here the goal is to deal with common and specific symptoms such as stress and tension, a nervous voice, a wavy pointer, and blackouts. By removing these symptoms you can trick your body into thinking it’s comfortable, and the cognitive issues often fade along with them. But there are clear strategies for dealing with blackouts, too.
  2. The first step is to try to replicate the condition of your body when you’re nervous, by imagining you’re in the situation, or remembering the feelings you had the last time.
  3. Anxiety is usually marked by muscle tension in very specific parts of your body. The first goal is to be aware of their positions and consciously relax them. My own technique is very simple: I totally relax my ankles, letting go of all tension in my ankles and then my feet. When I do this – and it’s true for most other people as well – it is very hard to maintain tension anywhere else – in my back, my vocal chords, etc. Try it – totally relax your ankles, and while doing so try to make a muscle tense in your back, or your arms. If it’s difficult, that means you can use this approach as well. If not, you need to find some other part of your body that you can deliberately relax and thus force yourself to relax the stressed muscles as well. Stand up and relax your ankles. This should be the first thing you do after you’re standing at the lecturn or whatever, and you’ll have to practice remembering to do it.
  4. Remember that the first 30 seconds or so of a talk are less about the content than about the audience learning to listen to your voice and style. If you realize that, then you realize that it’s also a time that you can use to get comfortable. First of all, BREATHE. Then speak SLOWLY and CLEARLY and have a clear strategy prepared to invite your listeners to engage with you right from the beginning. This is something you have to practice as well – people are usually most nervous at the beginning of a talk, and that’s when they usually talk the fastest. Additionally, for predictable reasons, they tend to say the highly technical terms they are most familiar with the fastest – and these are just the words that need to be spoken the most clearly and distinctly. Practice the beginning of your talk with a metronome or by slowly pacing around in a way that forces you to slow the rate of syllables as you speak. You’ll have to practice this a lot of times until you instinctively start slowly rather than with the rush of nervousness.
  5. Engagement #1: try to engage the listeners at the very beginning. Before you speak, look around at some of their faces and smile. If you’re not fixed to a podium or a position at the front, move toward them, as if you’re in a more informal setting.
  6. Engagement #2: if possible, start off with a real question that interests you and has motivated the work, if you can find one that’s general enough to be grasped by the entire audience. Why? If you’re lucky, they’ll actually try to come up with an answer in their own minds, or focus on the question. This immediately draws the audience into the content, rather than a focus on you and your behavior. At that point you’ve engaged them in the subject matter. If they really try to answer the question, they’ll think something like, “Oh, that’s interesting; I would have tried to do it this way…” and you’ll immediately have set up a dialogue that will continue throughout the talk and will provide plenty of good feedback at the end.
  7. Engagement #3: Rhetorically speaking, most data slides are also shown to answer specific questions. (“Does protein A interact with protein B?” Well, to find out, here’s what we did. You see the results here, which provides the following answer…) Unfortunately, most speakers don’t realize that this is what’s happening. They use the ANSWER to the question as the title of the slide, and often start trying to explain the answer before clearly presenting either the question, the methodology, and the results. This confuses the rather simple story-line inherent in the slide. It can also disrupt the talk as a whole because an answer (end of slide) usually stimulates the next question (beginning of next slide). You don’t have to make all the titles of your slides questions, but you should realize this is what is going on (and actually, why not do it?). It has the benefit of gluing separate slides together in a smooth story. And it also can stop a big problem that occurs if the order of information on a slide is different from the order you are using while speaking. When that happens, people are trying to read and listen at the same time, are getting different information from those two channels, and probably won’t remember anything.
  8. Boiling a talk down into a big question and many sub-questions can have a huge effect on anxiety when you’re worried about content blackouts. All you need to remember (or have on tiny cards in your hand) are the questions. You know the answers – that’s what you’ve been doing for the past 100 years. The question-answer method serves to create a real dialogue that engages the public and also an outline of your talk.
  9. Practice other specific performance problems that you are aware of. The first step in finding a cure is to identify what has been disrupted at the right level (it’s just like practicing music that way). A while back I had a student who was having what looked like blackouts during a talk. Later he explained that they weren’t blackouts – instead, every idea was bombarding his brain at once, and he couldn’t figure out where to start. I suggested a method by which he put up a slide and practiced fixing his eyes precisely on the thing he would talk about first, then moving them to the next thing, and so on. The very next day he gave a talk in front of 400 people without a single glitch or “brain freeze.”
  10. Shaky voice. If your voice quavers or trembles while you speak, the problem may be tension in some part of your body (see number 3 above). Often there is another problem, especially (but not only) if you are speaking in a foreign language. You may be pitching your voice too high or too low, which puts tension on your vocal cords and that will extend into your face and throat and shoulders and then the rest of your body – and then you’re doomed! This often happens in a foreign language, where people sometimes choose a “base pitch” (the tone – in a musical sense – at which you would speak if you were talking in a monotone) that is at the wrong place of the spectrum. This is really likely to happen if you subjectively consider your voice too high or too low (to be “sexy”) and try to place it differently. How do you know the right base pitch that your voice should have? A friend who has become a well-known speech pathologist gave me this tip. Go to a piano, and find the highest and lowest keys that you can comfortably The appropriate ground tone for your voice should be between the half-way mark and a third of the way from the bottom of this range. If you try to speak at a pitch that’s too low, you’ll experience the “creaky voice” phenomenon. If your voice is too high, in general, you’ll strain your vocal chords and eventually get hoarse or lose your voice. If either of these things happens to you anyway on a regular basis, you may be pitching your everyday voice too high or low. Also try different volumes of voice. You may arrive in a big room with no microphone, and you’ll have to project. Aim your voice at the person in the back, without shouting at the people in the front row. Your diaphragm and vocal cords have the potential to cause all the air in the room to vibrate and communicate your message. Singing teachers know the secrets of projection. I don’t, but it has a lot to do with breathing deeply and comfortably, and not tightening your throat or larynx.
  11. Shaky pointer syndrome. The reason a pointer shakes is because of tension in the muscles that control your arm and hand. The solution is to let your shoulder hang, without any muscular activity from the back or upper arm, and imagine that all the weight is on your elbow, and that it’s sitting on a table. Now use only the muscles you need to raise your forearm (preserving this feeling of all the weight in your elbow) and aim the pointer at a spot on the wall. Let it remain on the same point for a while. If it shakes, there’s probably some tension still in your upper arm (it’s really hard to make the forearm tense if your upper arm and shoulder are relaxed). Once you can hold the point relatively still, try moving it back and forth in a horizontal line. Here, too, you should imagine that your elbow is resting on the table, taking all the weight from your shoulder, and you’re just sliding your forearm back and forth.
  12. Those nerdy, highly technical slides… Although most scientists tell me that nowadays, most of the talks they give are to mixed, non-specialist audiences, you’re bound to have a few slides that are complex or obscure and you won’t have time to teach people “how to read them.” Example: I’m working with scientists who are developing mathematical models of biological processes, and at some point in their talks they want to show the real deal – math and formulas. They know a lot of people will be intimidated by this, but they still need to show the real work. On the other hand, they don’t want people to “tune out” and give up on understanding the rest of the presentation. At this point what I recommend is to say something like, “Now my next slide is specially made for you math nerds out there; the rest of you can take a short mental vacation and I’ll pick you up in just a minute on the other side.”
  13. Imagine the “personality” you’ll project when you become the leading expert in your field. Pretend like you’ve given the talk a hundred times to enormous success, and now you’re on the lecture circuit, giving it to audiences that think you’re the Greatest and are eager to provide input and their own ideas. How will you look up there? What kind of voice will you have? What types of rhetorical devices can you use to project “modest authority”? When a musician has practiced and practiced a piece for months, and gets stuck, sometimes all you have to do to make the next big step is to imagine what it will sound like when you play it a year from now. If you can imagine that, as concretely as possible, usually the next time you play it will be much closer to that vision. The same thing goes for giving talks.
  14. Criteria for success… If I give someone directions to a party, there’s a simple test that reveals whether I’ve done a good job or not – whether they arrive on time, on the right day… What’s the equivalent for a talk? (Pause while you think about it a minute…) The best answer I’ve heard is this: Imagine you leave the room and there’s somebody waiting outside who says, “Damn! I really wanted to hear that talk; what did he/she say?” At that point a member of the audience should be able to give the person a short summary, and it should fit two criteria: 1) the speaker would agree with it, and 2) most members of the audience should give very similar answers. As a speaker, how do you ensure that this happens? Well, the most obvious way – which few people really ever consider – is to close your talk by saying this: “Now imagine when you leave the room, there’s somebody standing outside who tells you, ‘Damn, I really wanted to hear that talk; what did he/she say?’ Well, here’s what you should tell them…” And then sum it up in a nice little package that’s tight enough to be remembered, with a clean, predictable story line. Remember you’re not trying to simply communicate single facts! You’re trying to answer a question – which you have to be able to articulate very precisely – and you need to explain the meaning of that question in terms of models and concepts that you share with the audience. You need to put information into a structure that can be grasped and remembered, in a way that holds the attention of the audience and engages their intelligence. This means you have to provide information in a relational, coherent structure – and if they don’t share your background and models, you’ll have to provide it. If you do that, you’ll get the kind of smart questions and feedback you’d like, the kind that will help you improve your thinking and your research.

The last points relate to content, which will be the subject of more articles very soon.

ALL of these points require practice – numerous repetitions while mentally imagining the real-life situation as it will feel, as closely as possible. You may always feel anxious before or during a talk; it may never go away. But most people can deal with the symptoms, using strategies like these, and that makes all the difference.

Two final points: First, remember what it’s like to be in the audience when a speaker is really nervous. Everybody is rooting for him or her – they’re on your side! Take comfort in that and try to engage people in the sense that “you’re all in this together”: you’re inviting them to think about an interesting question with you, rather than waiting for them to throw rocks (or shoes) at you.

Secondly, you’ve got to be engaged in the content. Even when you think your story isn’t that great or sexy, or leaves lots of questions up in the air – well, that’s what most science is like, folks! Remember that you’re presenting something that has an inherent interest to a lot of scientists. And negative results are useful as well because they can save your colleagues a lot of time; it will prevent them from following the same old leads, time and time again, without realizing that other labs have tried and failed and been unable to publish their results. Closing off blind alleys is a great service to scientists everywhere – it’s a key step toward progress by forcing people to rethink and revise the basic models they are using.

These are some of the very basics I’ve learned through experience in many performance situations of my own as well as working with a lot of students with different problems over the years. I have learned a lot from the fantastic teachers I have had the privilege of studying with (and continue to do so in the life-long process of learning). I also absorbed a lot from a fantastic book about performance anxiety, whose focus is music but every bit of it is applicable to public speaking, which I highly recommend here:

The Inner Game of Music
Overcome obstacles, improve concentration and reduce nervousness to reach a new level of musical performance
Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey (co-author of the Inner Game of Tennis)
London: Pan Books, 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-9172-5

At Amazon, also available on Kindle

For other articles on science communication teaching, click here.


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