I used to have a extreme fear of talks. And now I sometimes really enjoy it! I am giving the third talk in three weeks soon and I am looking forward to it.
I know many shy, often female scientists who are very afraid of talks, and for some it becomes a serious problem, in that they turn down offers for giving a talk about their work, which is bad. Here is what has helped me:
0) Doing a rhetorics seminar and taking lessons with a voice trainer. This was not over the top and I think it is totally justified, since giving talks is such an important skill in science. And it was fun and very interesting.
1) If the talk is coming closer, and I feel that I’m getting nervous, I try to interpret this as energy and excitement. Nervousness feels similar to excitement. This energy can help me to give a lively and enthusiastic talk and I welcome it. Nobody wants to see a bored speaker!
2) Breathe out. This was the single most important advice for me. It cured me immediately of the worst fear I had, losing my voice. If you breathe out enough, you can never lose your voice. Breathing in too much is the main reason for increasing panic, shaking voice and stress during talk, since it gives the body the signal that something is really wrong. Breathing out gives your body the signal that things are fine.
3) Take breaks when talking. You can use them to breathe out, or to feel the ground beneath your feet. The audience likes that. If I listen to a talk myself, I am glad about any break, since it gives me time to process what I have heard. Breaks also show that you are not just saying what you learned by heart, you are talking to them, and the audience likes that too.
4) I try to remember that very likely noone in the world knows more about my topic than myself. This is even true for PhD students early in their career. You know more about your own work than the most famous professors in the room, and people want to hear about it.
5) Questions. Take time to think after hearing a question. What was really asked? Answering a question that was not asked happens often and is stressful for everyone. What if they point out a weakness in your analysis that you have totally not noticed before? Smile, and say: “This is an excellent point. We have not yet checked this aspect, but we will do so in the future.”
6) If I sit in a conference and my talk is coming closer, it helps to think the following: “God damn it! I have to listen to talks all the time! It is high time I can also say something!”
7) In the morning of the talk, go through the following parts of your body:
The ground beneath your feet/The center of your body/The line between your feet and the top of your head/Your breathing/ Your voice/Your silence/Your space
I address each of them loudly, say” My space”. “My voice”. etc. This has become a very helpful ritual for me. I feel like this is a set of magic tools I bring onto the stage with me.
8) Feel the enthusiasm and love that you have for your work during the talk.
9) Practice. Volunteer for talks. And ask question after other people’s talks.