It turns out, Jerry Seinfeld’s old joke about public speaking is close to spot on. He said:
According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
The 2014 Chapman University American fears study confirmed that America’s top phobia is public speaking. (More recent versions of the study seem to reflect the current times. The top 2020-2021 fears revolve around government corruption, death, COVID, school shootings, and natural disasters, although public speaking apparently still ranks as more scary than getting murdered by a stranger or being sexually assaulted.)
As a communication professor and speech teacher, I’m baffled by these statistics but even I admit, I get the jitters before every public speaking event. EVERY public speaking event, including and especially, the first day of school and making presentations at conferences.
As it happens, I’m heading to a convention later this week and will be facilitating an undergraduate research conference and presenting a paper of my own for the first time in ages. For weeks, I’ve been thinking about what makes a great presentation and how to reduce the nerves. Because I will never forget that one time I lost my entire train of thought in front a room full of academic idols. (It’s been ten years, and I’m STILL mortified.)
Thinking about 14 years of teaching communication and practicing public speaking, here are five tips for nailing your next presentation:
1. Remember, your audience is friendly! You’re bound to be nervous, but just remember—your audience is interested in your presentation and wants you to be successful. Whether you’re at a prestigious conference or giving a speech in class, your audience wants to hear something good and will be rooting for you to succeed. If you make a mistake, no problem. Take a pause, gather your thoughts, and start again. Absolutely no one (but you) will remember the fumbles.
If you’re extra nervous, don’t follow the clichéd “picture the audience in their underwear” advice. Instead, find the friendly head-nodder who usually sits in the front few rows smiling and nodding at everything you say. They are MAGIC for calming nerves. And don’t forget, at conferences, it’s likely that everyone else on the panel is nervous, too. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this!
2. Don’t try to cram an entire paper into 10 minutes. If you’re presenting something complicated like an academic paper or complex report, do NOT try to cram every detail into your presentation. Unless you’re a keynote speaker, you’ve got a compressed window of time to share. Think about your presentation as a movie trailer for the paper. Get your audience enticed. Give them enough info to know what your paper is about and what the big takeaways are… If folks want more detail, they’ll ask for it.
3. Give us the goods—YOUR analysis and ideas. Too many presenters spend their entire time slot on the intro and background, when what we really want to hear is the “so what.” However you break up your time, make sure to leave enough room to tell the audience your main findings, why they are important, and why we should care. To make sure I don’t miss giving the goods, I tend to follow a TED talk “bottom line up front” style where I preview the so-what first, and then explain how I got there.
4. PRACTICE YOUR TIMING. Professional etiquette for public speaking, especially at conferences, requires that speakers keep to their allotted time so that everyone gets a chance to present their work and have time for Q&A at the end. At conferences, the respondent and/or chair will usually give time cues. But it’s vital to practice—OUT LOUD AND MORE THAN ONCE—so you can hit all of your main points before the clock runs out.
After my losing my train debacle, I practiced the heck out of my next presentation. But please note: practice does not mean memorize. It means being able to discuss your material confidently, knowing what key points you want to include, and getting a sense of how fast or slow you speak.
5. Remember, you’re the expert! But it’s okay not to know, too. One of the most scary types of presentations? The ones that happen in front of audiences who are very knowledgeable about your topic. I usually get a brief wave of imposter syndrome before academic conferences, even when I know I’m one of the few people who study the particular thing I study. So I remind myself of item #1 and remember that while I’m an expert on my paper, my audience is friendly and people who ask questions are not trying to trip me up*.
If you get stumped by a question or suggestion, it’s completely okay to say “Thank you, I’m not sure about that,” or “The focus of my research didn’t include XYZ, but I’ll look into it,” or my favorite, “I’ll consider that for my next project.”
* Most likely anyway. There are the occasional jerks who ask pointed questions but it’s usually to give themselves a chance to demonstrate their expertise. See: “I have more of a comment than a question” dialogues online.