Imagine this: The lights are dimmed, your first slide is up on the screen behind you, and you've just stood up to speak at your lab meeting, at a department seminar, or at a conference full of the leaders in your field. Can you give your presentation with confidence? Or does your heart pound and your hands sweat just imagining it?
It's a frequently cited statistic that more people report fearing public speaking than death.1 Yet as scientists, a key part of our work is communicating our findings, by speaking as well as by writing. At any level of academic research, public speaking is a necessary skill. Those of us who dread it will save ourselves a lot of worry by working to conquer that fear. Below are several suggestions to improve your confidence and skill in presenting.
1. Practice, practice, practice. The more familiar you are with your material, the more smoothly you can deliver your presentation. Knowing that you can deliver your talk without grasping for the words gives you a tremendous confidence boost. In addition, if you practice in front of others, you can get feedback on which parts were effective and which parts need improvement. Practicing before a group can also help you anticipate questions.
2. If necessary, write it out. This can be particularly effective for colleagues who are not native speakers of English, but it can be helpful for anyone. It's unusual in cell biology for presenters to read their talk off a piece of paper but writing down what you plan to say can be a useful step in your preparation toward a polished, seemingly "off-the-cuff" presentation. As you prepare your slides, write down the main points for each in the order you want to discuss them, as well as how you plan to transition from one idea to the next. This helps to make your presentation smooth instead of stumbling, and it can help you keep track of the time you're speaking. After practicing by reading your notes aloud, transition to practicing with your notes in bullet-point form; ideally, you can then transition to presenting without the notes.
3. Check out the room. If you're used to speaking in small rooms, it can be daunting to present in a large seminar hall. To avoid last-minute nerves when you stand up to speak, investigate the room beforehand. Stand at the podium and look out at the room; if possible, deliver a few sentences from your presentation.
4. Find your friends. For many presentations, you will know at least a couple of members of the audience. The rest of the audience may be less intimidating if you focus your mind on giving the talk to the people you're more comfortable around.
5. Join a public speaking club or journal club. The suggestions above may help with individual presentations, but for a long-term solution to a fear of public speaking, there's nothing like practice and experience. A public speaking club can provide a supportive environment and the structure you may need to make presentations feel more routine. In addition, the club can give you feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. The most common public speaking clubs in the U.S. are affiliated with Toastmasters International,2 although other local clubs may meet in your area. I've been a member of a Toastmasters club for a few years, and it has made me a more confident speaker. As a science-focused alternative, you can join a journal club or data club related to your research – this will provide you public speaking practice, with the extra bonus of expanding your knowledge in your area.
While I still get nervous at the prospect of public speaking, following the suggestions above has helped me keep my nerves in check. I hope they'll be helpful to you, too. Good luck with your next presentation!