Beating Presentation Stage Fright

The deadline for 3 Minute Thesis applications is coming up next Friday 24th July. (What’s 3 Minute Thesis, you ask? It’s a competition you should enter! Go here to find out more.) As we all prepare our talks, now is probably a good time to think about strategies for giving confident, professional presentations.

Healthy presentation skills are a great career tool for postgrads. Academics have to talk to audiences constantly – in their departments, at conferences, and every time they give a lecture. If you’re planning a non-academic career, almost any line of work for highly educated people will involve some sharing or dissemination of ideas.

Unfortunately, stage fright is very real. (I get the shakes, sometimes to the point that my teeth rattle – which is great fun when there’s a microphone near my mouth.) We’ve all heard the standard public speaking advice: picture the audience naked, take deep breaths, practice, practice, practice. These are all good tips, except perhaps the naked one. But if you’re still nervous, try these:

Scared of the audience? Remember, you may not even see them.

If you are due to speak somewhere that has any form of special lighting, there is a very good chance that you won’t see your audience at all. When the lights are on you, and the house lights are dimmed, you’re effectively blind to anything further back than the lights.

That means the audience fades into a black haze of indistinctness. Invisible audiences are lovely. You can pretend they don’t exist, but they still laugh at your jokes and clap at the end.

Can’t project your voice? Sing an aria before your presentation.

I once took a night class on singing. I thought I’d go for an hour each week, hum some pop songs, and blow off steam. But oh, no. It was much more serious than that. The teacher was an operatic soprano, and she pushed the class to project our voices, test the limits of our vocal range, and go through endless drills. Let me tell you, my voice after an hour of singing was much stronger than before. Singing warms the vocal cords, and it forces you to breathe in such a way that your voice can project much further than normal. Just think: opera singers of centuries past didn’t have microphones, and yet they performed to audiences of thousands. They must have been doing something right.

Awkward hands? Give out invisible sandwiches.

What are you supposed to do with your hands while you’re dazzling the audience with your voice? Give out invisible sandwiches. Fans of the show “Community” may remember Shirley using the sandwich trick to give a speech in her business class (episode 1.10, for you Community geeks out there). The sandwich trick goes like this: as you are speaking, extend an open palm and imagine that you are offering your audience an invisible sandwich. This creates an impression that you are welcoming and inclusive. The sandwich stops you from forming an awkward fist, since you don’t want to crush the delicious invisible sourdough.


Got some presentation tips of your own? Share them in the comments!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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