15 August 2014

Fear has deep roots Fear has deep roots

At the end of last week’s post on giving a talk that everyone remembers I wanted to know what you found most difficult about communicating your research. Leonard was generous enough to share his current sticking point:

I find it hard to speak slowly and deliberately when nervous. So I usually come off as a shy, smiling and nervous projectile of words directed at the audience. I need to learn to pause after each word or point and let stuff sink in before moving on.

You’re not alone, Leonard. Here are three techniques that have helped me get better at this over time.

Make it a daily practice

It’s kind of inefficient to wait until you have to give a presentation to work on your speaking skills. Instead, regard everyday social situations as opportunities for practice. Think about cashiers, neighbors and bartenders as potential audience members and pay attention to the way you communicate with them. Notice if you break eye contact when it’s your turn to speak and make an effort to maintain it, replace uhms and ahs with silence (pausing will feel awkward at first), and focus on projecting your voice when you address others (speak from the gut, not the throat).

If talking to strangers one-on-one doesn’t make you as anxious as giving a presentation, try attending other people’s presentations and asking a question at the end. For some people, being part of the Q & A session can be even scarier than being in front of the room giving the talk.

You can do a million things to push yourself outside your comfort zone. The more you try, the faster you will improve your ability to speak confidently.

Record yourself

You probably don’t want to hear this, but the most efficient way to get better at public speaking is recording yourself and watching it afterwards. I ran into this uncomfortable piece of advice when I volunteered to put together a workshop on how to give awesome presentations. My PhD program gave me a fancy camera and told me to record the whole thing. I had zero experience with recording equipment, so I set up the tripod and practiced delivering my speech looking at the camera.

Speaking with the red light on felt as scary as being in front of a packed auditorium. The first time I stumbled, I felt a strong urge to switch off the camera and start over, but I managed to keep going. After five minutes, the nerves went away and I settled into my normal presentation mode. I stopped recording, connected the camera to my laptop, and reluctantly hit play. I watched in horror as my annoying twin delivered a speech in a dry robotic tone, peppered with weird eyebrow-raising and ear-scratching tics.

It was painful, but worth it. I understood what I was doing wrong, I added color and feeling to my voice, I stopped twitching and, more importantly, I went to get the haircut I had been putting off for the previous two and a half years.

Detach from your fear

Fear is just an emotion. Like anger, like happiness. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. You don’t commit a felony every time you fight with someone because you can be angry without acting on your anger. Likewise, you can be afraid of something without acting on your fear. If your life is in danger it makes sense to run as fast as you can, but when you are giving a presentation fear is pretty useless. When it shows up, acknowledge it, and ignore it.

Your job is to show your fear that trying new things is not going to kill you. Stepping away from the podium is not going to kill you. Making eye contact with the audience is not going to kill you. Speaking louder or slower than usual is not going to kill you. At some point, the fear realizes it has no power to change what you’re going to do and it backs down.

You can’t control your feelings, but you can control your actions.

Bonus tip: Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a way of observing your thoughts without identifying with them. It’s a form of meditation, but it doesn’t require burning incense, lighting candles or chanting. Think of it as the mental equivalent of going to the gym and lifting weights. You focus your attention on the breath and every time an unrelated thought arises, you notice it and you go back to focusing on the breath.

I do 20 minutes every day and it makes it much easier to deal with stressful situations. If you need help getting started, check out these two guided meditations by fellow scientist Sam Harris (if anyone has a mental six-pack, it’s this guy).