Giving Presentations While Feeling Nervous — My Story
A Few Steps I’ve Used to Navigate Presentations as a Highly Introverted (And Often Nervous) Human
The most important advice that you need to prepare for a presentation is to do what makes you feel most comfortable. Those criteria may change from year to year, from day to day, and even from moment to moment. We have to adapt to our circumstances and, sometimes, rise above our own expectations.
Like most people, I’ve been giving public presentations for most of my life. My teachers and peers have evaluated my public speaking skills since I was in high school. Back then, I would physically shake while talking in front of people just because I knew I was being evaluated. My body would tremble, and my peers would joke with me after and say, “It’s over. Are you okay?”
I don’t think that I physically shake anymore, but I can’t say that presentations have gotten meaningfully more calm for me. However, I do have a process to manage my time, focus, and attention for when I do get the opportunity to present my thoughts. In the sections below, I discuss a few.
1. Start with the positive aspects.
Think of the presentation as an opportunity. It is a chance to speak about a topic that you enjoy, that impassions you. The presentation is a time for you to help others see what you see. It gives them a glimpse of the work that you do and your rationale behind it. If you don’t feel excited about your presentation topic, perhaps you should change the focus of the presentation to a theme that truly interests you.
2. Prepare well.
What are you giving your audience? What do you feel comfortable sharing with them? What can you gain from giving your presentation? These are three guiding questions for when I prepare to present. To me, time is one of the most precious resources that we have. I don’t want to waste my audience’s time or my own. So, I try to incorporate sections into my presentation that will be meaningful and, in some cases, beneficial to them. For example, I like to discuss healthy sleep parameters and definitions because they relate to my research and are also useful reminders for prioritizing healthy sleep.
I also think about the discussion points that I feel comfortable sharing. I do not include research papers in my talks that I have not read or feel unprepared to explain. In most of my presentations, I borrow slides from my previous talks. Because I have discussed the material before, I am familiar with the content and can anticipate some of the questions.
Lastly, there are times that I want feedback from my audience on a developing project. In that case, I include discuss questions or directly request feedback from others.
Thus, the presentation is of reciprocal benefit. Most good presentations give the audience information that is applicable to them. And, it’s in the interest of the presenter to get some useful feedback on their ideas.
3. Set time constraints.
How much time are you willing to spend on the presentation? Regardless of our job descriptions or familial situations, our time is finite, and we should treat it as such. When I was an undergraduate student, I gave myself an inordinate amount of time to prepare for presentations. As I have gotten older, I understand that it doesn’t make sense for me to spend so much time preparing to present, nor do I have the same amount of unstructured time I had during undergraduate school. These days, I try to limit preparing a presentation — from start to finish — to four hours. Within these four hours, I design the slides, prepare my notes, and practice the presentation. The four-hour limit is not hard rule, but it’s a useful guide. Depending on the nature of the presentation (e.g., length, importance), my time constraints may vary.
4. Execute comfortably.
What will make you feel the calmest and most ready to present in front of others? We should consider several variables when preparing to present. Some that I pay attention to are my clothing, equipment, and physical position. When I present, I dress in business casual clothing. This is typically a button-up shirt and dark jeans. I try to dress in (stereotypical) professional clothing when I present because I understand that my clothing reflects some level of professionalism and preparation to my audience.
I give most of my presentations on Zoom. Because the video quality on my web cam is poor, I have been using the camera on my iPhone 13 mini for my presentations. Before I give the talk, I make sure that I can position the camera in a way that I can refer to my notes while looking toward the camera. I also check that I can display the presenter slides for presenter view (and hide my notes) for my PowerPoint presentation.
Lastly, whether in person or on Zoom, I prefer to stand while presenting. I bought a standing desk for my home office a few months ago, and it’s been helpful. Standing while presenting lets me move around more than I would if I were just sitting. The movement helps me displace some of my nervous energy during the presentation.
I always end with reflection. How did the presentation go? Was the experience in alignment with my expectations? Each time I present, I have it set in my mind that something will go horribly wrong. Despite all of my positive framing and preparation, I just know that it will somehow be a difficult experience for me. But, that is rarely the reality. I’m often happily surprised by the audience’s questions, comments, and interest in my academic research. Importantly, I normally feel supported by my colleagues in the sense that they are working with me and accept me within the academic research space. While that is not always the case, it is often my experience.
Although I don’t experience the same degree of nervous trembling spells, I still feel shaky at the thought of giving a presentation. I’m much more built for writing than presenting. But, when I do get the opportunity to speak on a topic about which I care deeply, I take it seriously. And, lately, I’ve been following these simple steps — focusing on the positives, preparing, setting time constraints, executing the presentation comfortably, and my favorite part, reflecting on the experience.
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