Public speaking project

I started performing (violin) at a very young age and so have never had as hard a time public speaking as other people; don’t get me wrong, standing in front of a room full of people imagining them disparaging my science makes me just as nervous as the next person, but I have training that I can go back to that help reduce stress and keep me on an even keel.

Last week, a small group of grad student friends and I piloted a series of exercises designed to help deal with the preparation, execution, and iterative improvement of public speaking. We are treating “public speaking” as inclusive of teaching, talking with colleagues in the hallway at a conference, or speaking to a room full of people.

I mainly pulled from my dance and performance background but enjoyed the feedback from the experiences of someone with martial arts training and someone with a background in singing. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Draw on your strengths. As I just alluded to, as soon as we can connect speaking to something we’ve practiced and feel comfortable with, it builds confidence and therefore we are perceived as more confident. Fake it ’til you make it.
  2. Practice good posture – lie on the floor, use your core to connect your lower back to the floor, allow your neck to be long and aligned. Now practice your talk in this position. Next stand up against a wall and feel that same connection with the back, shoulders, and neck. It will help to be grounded into the floor; When I teach dance, I often talk about “a floor beneath this floor” that I am actively pushing my feet into. You can feel this if instead of standing with your feet parallel, you stand in more of a “lunge” position – you will be forced to engage your leg muscles and push into the floor, so you can feel that same engagement while standing “normally”. Also, you will feel more active and engaged if your energy is a bit forward onto the balls of your feet and that will translate to your audience as confidence and excitement. No locked knees! You can also practice your talk in “weird” positions so that you stay focused on your topic even if you are out of sorts, but when you go in to the actual meeting, give yourself a strong base.
  3. Breath! Breath into the deep belly and lower back. You can also prepare for a few minutes ahead of your talk by breathing in a “square”: breath in steadily for a count of 4 (or 6 or 8); pause for a count of 4; breath out steadily for a count of 4; pause for a count of 4.
  4. Practice the first few sentences of your talk the most. Like, hundreds of times until it’s a habit to rattle it off. I promise that you’ll be nervous enough when you actually stand up that you won’t sound like you’re reading from a script, but it will help trigger you into the pattern of the talk that you have rehearsed after it. I like a general script of “Good afternoon/morning. I thank X person for organizing and thank you all for being here. Today I’m going to talk about recent research at X institution where we are investigating X topic (similar to the title but not repeating it).” Other people like to thank funders in that first few sentences, etc. Listen to speakers you like and dissect their first few sentence script and then practice your own.
  5. Practice “down tones” at the ends of sentences. You will sound more assured. (say those two sentences out loud as though they were questions, with “up tones” at the end, and you’ll hear what I mean).
  6. “I don’t know what to do with my hands!” We suggest the first step is to practice with the hands held either in front of the body or in back of the body (keep good posture!). I personally like having my hands at the side, but with intention. One way to practice intentionality in the hands and arms (while not holding tension) is to stand with your hands straight up over your head – you will feel which muscles engage and you will feel that your hands are somewhere “on purpose”. Practice your talk in this position. Next, drop your hands back down and engage those same muscles to bring intention to the hands. DO NOT CROSS ARMS OVER BODY DURING A QUESTION AND ANSWER PORTION – the body language will make you seem completely closed off.
  7. Related to #6, practice describing each of your graphs with energy and intention. We’ve all had that moment when the trend line or some data points don’t show up on the projector, so use decisive gestures to show the audience what is there; they can always find you afterwords to look at the raw data. In my opinion, laser pointers are rarely helpful and often distracting (if you’re the least bit nervous, the laser pointer will give away your shaky hand immediately!).
  8. Related to #7, you don’t need to apologize for mistakes that are either your own or due to technical difficulties. The audience doesn’t really care – they want to focus on what you did and found (and not on you suddenly noticing you misspelled your study species!), and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. If you absolutely can’t bring yourself to skip over saying something, you can phrase it as “Thanks for your patience with X” or “I welcome anyone to see me afterwords for the complete version” which brings the audience IN to your world rather than distancing them.
  9. Smiling is ok. Moving around is ok, especially if you can use it to enhance your story. Eg. If you are contrasting two things, talk about one thing while standing on the side of the slide that is addressing that thing, then move to the other side of the slide to talk about the contrast.
  10. It’s ok to be loud and powerful. This last tip is especially relevant for teaching but I have certainly used this idea as a speaker in a big space or as an MC. I suggest practicing stamping your feet to MAKE NOISE. Practice audibly and forcefully exhaling with a “HUH!” sound that fills the room. For some people, this will be the most difficult task, while for others should feel pretty natural, but this loud intention can be extremely useful. I once had a student at the way back of the room who was horsing around his lab mates with chemicals on the desk and was posing a danger to them all, and I didn’t have time to run over there and politely tell him to knock it off. Instead, I intensively and forcefully said “hey” from across the room and he immediately stopped moving and paid attention to me. Note that I did not yell at him, I just needed the attention in that instant.
  11. I saved the most painful exercise for last: film yourself while practicing and if possible during the actual talk. Watch. Repeat. While we can all immediately focus on all of the things that we hate about how we look/sound, instead, give feedback to yourself they way you would to your best friend – you would be gentle but want them to succeed; don’t be too hard on yourself and you will continue to improve.

I have a plan to create short videos illustrating these and other exercises, so let me know if that is something you’d be interested in or if there are additional topics you think we missed!


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