Tips for reducing talk anxiety (part 2a, first feedback from readers)

Wow! The article on performance anxiety is getting a lot of traction; thanks very much for the feedback and I’m hoping for a lot more. (See the full article here or just scroll down if you’ve landed at the blog main page. Click here for a list of other pieces devoted to teaching and training.)

Two readers have provided tips that I include here with a couple of comments:

From Jennifer Kirwan, the head of the Metabolomics Unit at the Berlin Institute of Health, come two pointers:

Two tips I was given years ago when public speaking:

1)      Never ever use a laser pointer or wooden stick. Instead, use powerpoint animations to circle or otherwise highlight the point of interest. Not only does this eliminate the issue of shaky hand syndrome, but it also serves to engage your audience more as frequently people have to struggle to see the laser dot on the screen, especially when it’s moving.

2)      Many people tend to find they blush when faced with public speaking. We were advised if we have this problem to wear clothes that cover our shoulders and avoid low cut clothes. It makes the blushing less obvious and, if you are less worried about people seeing you blush, you’re less likely to start.

Great points. A couple of remarks:
To 1: It’s absolutely true that the spot from a laser pointer can be hard to see – especially under certain lighting conditions and on some slide backgrounds. And a pointer can be terribly distracting in the hands of speakers with that awful habit of drawing really fast circles around the thing they want you to look at. (…which may be an unconscious strategy they’ve adopted to hide trembling – or the effect of a major caffeine overdose). And the pointer is often a lazy person’s way of compensating for a slide that’s crammed with too much information, or whose design is unclear and hard to scan. (And, of course, if the audience is looking at the laser dot, they won’t be looking at you.)
Caveats: Some people (including me) aren’t very fond of PowerPoint. I’m not as fanatical about this as other people (including the peerless Edward Tufte), but they make very good points. It’s crucial to map out content and your message before you choose the template for each slide and the talk in general. When you do, you’ll often find that none of the templates really fits. Most people do it the other way around. They pick some template, or simply start with the default that some other user set up long ago, and try to fit their information into it. This can impose a structure on the message that doesn’t fit it at all, and you may not even be aware of it.
But for anyone who does use PowerPoint, or another system with similar animation features, Jennifer’s advice has some clever added benefits. Picking spots to animate or highlight will force you to plan a rhetorical path through the information on the slide – those points represent the key landmarks in this chapter of your story. Defining that path can help you distinguish important information from unnecessary details, showing you things that can be left out. (General rule: leave out as much as possible, and then a little bit more.) Animations can also help during your presentation. If, God forbid, you do have a blackout, the next highlight will point you back into the story.
Even so, I would always have a pointer on hand: you may need it for other reasons. Someone may pose a question that requires you to return to a slide and focus on something you haven’t anticipated; you may need to point it out for the rest of the audience. Secondly, something can happen that makes you abandon your original plan. If time gets short you may need to skip things
Suppose, for example, the topic of the last speaker overlaps with yours. You  may want to build a bridge between the talks that you hadn’t anticipated: “The previous speaker addressed this question at the level of the transcriptome. At the level of the proteome, however, we didn’t see any upregulation of pathway components – as you can see here, and here.” (Since the focus of your talk is slightly different, you hadn’t highlighted those particular molecules.)
To 2); I really like Jennifer’s second point about using your wardrobe to cover blushing. That makes great sense.
(Although in my personal case, I’d need a different strategy, being the kind of person who rarely bares his shoulders or exposes much cleavage during a talk. Maybe I could wear a bright scarlet suit that made my face look pale, or go to the Solarium and get a mild sunburn beforehand, or blind the audience with my laser pointer, etc. etc. … Sorry, Jennifer, I couldn’t resist.)

The second comment came from my friend and former colleague Alan (aka Rex) Sawyer, and is interesting on several levels: cultural, pharmacological, and rhetorical:

I needed this advice 25 years ago while preparing for my first paid gig as a counter-tenor soloist (Friedenskirche, Handschusheim, Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 4, “Christ Lag in Todesbanden”). But what broke the ice as I went on stage was that the stagehand had failed to provide a seat for me. The audience laughed good-humouredly, which totally banished my case of nerves as it got the audience on my side. Later I got a top tip to eat three bananas about an hour before going on stage. Bananas contain trace quantities of a natural beta blocker. The effect is subtle, but it really works.
To that I can only say: if you’re already taking beta blockers, consult your physician before eating bananas; otherwise you may be comatose when it comes time to give your talk. Wait several hours before operating any heavy equipment. A laser pointer is probably safe.
And don’t get confused and eat three watermelons by mistake. The effects might resemble those of another pharmaceutical product: reports claim that a substance called citrulline in watermelon acts as a sort of natural Viagra. Although you’d probably have to eat an awful lot of it to experience the effects. And at that point, you might not want to walk onstage to give a talk.
If you like these pieces, you might be interested in the article:
If you’d rather enter the bizarre, twilight world where science collides with humor, check out the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases, or the text of a talk I gave in Oslo in 2015, plus everything else in the categories “Hilarious moments in science communication” or satire.
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