From the Science Student Council

Public speaking and graduate school

How to cope with and master your anxiety.

By Noreen Watson

Many of us have heard that public speaking ranks among the most feared situations. It is even said that many people fear public speaking more than death. If this is something that rings true for you, you are not alone. Unfortunately, graduate school often requires a fair amount of public speaking and presentations — especially for those of us interested in pursuing careers in academia. Public speaking can come in many forms: class presentations, colloquia, conference presentations, teaching, research proposals and defenses, and so forth.

The Good News

Although most of us may not possess the natural ability to comfortably and eloquently speak to an audience, like many other skills, public speaking can be practiced and improved. In fact, many talented public speakers readily admit that they were not experts in the beginning, but that they worked hard to hone their skill over time (e.g., Johnny Carson, Winston Churchill).

Here are some tips for coping with and conquering your public speaking angst.

Before Your Presentation
  • Practice, practice, practice. Practicing can be done in different ways. Personally, I have found the most effective method of practice is to stand up and speak out loud. This works much better than practicing while sitting down and just mentally rehearsing the words. Often, words that look good in writing can sound awkward when spoken. Hearing yourself talk through a presentation may help you identify awkward areas or areas where your audience may have difficulty following your ideas. It can also be helpful to record yourself (preferably on video) and give yourself constructive feedback. Note areas where you fumble or give too much (or too little) information and focus your energy on improving those points. After a few rounds of practice with your note cards, try putting them down; this can give you an opportunity to find areas of your talk that need more practice. Finally, if at all possible, it can be helpful to practice in the same room in which you will be presenting. If this is not possible, try to see the room so you may visualize what it will be like. 
  • Get constructive feedback. Find supportive people — partners, friends, lab mates, advisers — to lend an ear. Although practicing in front of familiar people can be more anxiety-inducing than speaking in front of strangers, doing so can elicit extremely helpful feedback. Additionally, these practice opportunities can help to reduce your anxiety by exposing you to your feared situation. When practicing in front of others, it can be tempting to allow yourself a few “do-overs” or “restarts,” but it is most helpful to treat the experience as if it was your actual presentation, with no option to start over if you make a mistake. 
  • Don't overlook transitions. Transitions from one point to the next or from one slide to the next are often overlooked and un-practiced. As a result, transitions can come across as awkward or distract your audience. After the content of your slides is set, spend time and energy practicing how you will transition from one topic or slide to the next. 
  • Pay attention to other speakers and presenters. Attend research talks, dissertation proposals, listen to class presentations or watch TED talks. Notice things that presenters do that you like (or do not like) and implement these elements into your own presentation style. Also, pay attention to the audience. When a presenter stumbles over a word, notice how the audience reacts. Do they seem to notice or care? Probably not. Remember this applies when you are presenting, too. 
  • Timing. Presentations and talks almost always have time limits. When practicing, be sure to pay attention to timing and make sure you can keep your talk within the allotted time (without speaking too quickly). Before presenting, you should have a pretty good sense how long your talk will take and feel confident that you will not go over time. One thing you may find helpful is using the “record timings” function in PowerPoint. This function lets you know how much time was spent on each slide during your practice. If you notice that you spent significantly more time on a particular slide, this may be an area of your talk to fine-tune. To stay within your time limit, you may also need to reduce the amount of content of your talk, keeping only the essential information. 
  • Think simple — particularly when preparing your visual aids. Visual aids should be just that — aids. Your slides should not have everything you want to say on them and should not be read verbatim to your audience. Some ways to help accomplish these goals would be to keep your text large and written in colors that are easily seen (e.g., dark text on a light background) and to use bullet points instead of full sentences. For more advice on building strong visual presentations, see “Presenting your research effectively” from last month's Psychological Science Agenda.
  • Remember a few helpful things. There are a number of reassuring thoughts that you can remind yourself of to help you cope with the anxiety of an upcoming presentation. For example, you can remember that “this too shall pass” or that “it will be over in X minutes.” You might also remind yourself that most people will not be able to tell how anxious or nervous you are — it is going to be most apparent to you. It can also be helpful to remember that, in many cases, you likely know more about the topic than most members of your audience. More often than not, your audience wants to hear what you have to say and learn about your topic. Many speakers have at least one or two things they try to focus on before their presentations. Find something that works for you and make it a point to say it to yourself whenever you start feeling a little anxious.
  • Let go of unrealistic expectations. We are all human and we all make mistakes. If you mess up, it is OK. Striving for absolute perfection will often lead to higher levels of anxiety and increase your chances of feeling disappointment.
During Your Presentation
  • Channel a speaker you like or admire. In other words, try to emulate a speaker whose style you like by speaking “as if” you were that person.
  • Look for at least one person in the audience who is nodding his or her head. This can be your nod of reassurance.
  • Remember to breathe. Breathing not only helps you slow down, but also helps calm those physical aspects of anxiety (e.g., heart rate). It may even be helpful to add the word “breathe!” into your speech notes.
  • Never underestimate the power of a smile.
After Your Presentation
  • If the question and answer segment of your presentation is what you are most worried about, remember that most questions are not meant to trick or stump you. Rather, questions often stem from curiosity and are an indication that your audience is engaged with your presentation. Questions can also be helpful in leading to collaborations and future research ideas. However, for the instances in which you may face a tough audience, you may find this gradPSYCH article helpful:"How to handle a tough audience."

In addition to these tips, there are many resources for dealing with fears of public speaking and information on how to hone your public speaking skills. For example, Feldman and Silvia recently published "Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations, Job Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself." This book may be particularly helpful for graduate students and early career psychologists.

Remember that effective public speaking is a skill that anyone can work to develop. We hope that you find some of these tips helpful as you work toward honing your public speaking skills.