Written by Alyssa Walker

Stage fright is perhaps one of the most underrated fears out there. You, alone, facing lots of people expecting you to talk and sound good. It's terrifying!

It's also among the most necessary skills you need to succeed in the competitive world of academia. You need to be able to communicate confidently, eloquently, and convincingly whether in a one-on-one meeting or behind the podium in a lecture hall.

Among all the hurdles you face as a PhD student, the biggest may have nothing to do with academics, research, or publishing. That's right: talking in front of people can be downright scary. Here are six tips to help you out if the mere thought of public speaking makes you nervous. 

1. Understand why it scares you

In a 2017 article from Psychology Today, Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D., explains there are four main reasons public speaking scares up to 25 percent of the population. First, he says, physiology may be to blame. Physiologically, humans are programmed to run at a threat. Does a large room filled with lots of people sound threatening? To many, yes.

Some people, by their natures, are more anxious than others. This, combined with the human physiological response to run and protect ourselves from scary situations causes some to loathe public speaking. 

Tsaousides also cites thoughts such as how others perceive you as a major barrier to public speaking, especially in front of people you know. You generally want people to like you. 

Your experience with these situations plays a factor, too. With no experience, you lack confidence. The flip side is that the more you practice, the better you are.

Finally, Tsaousides says that your general skill level may be cause for alarm, too. Few people have natural talent as public speakers.  

The takeaway from all of this isn't intuitive and arguably a bit paradoxical: you have to do more of it -- which sounds terrifying -- to feel less terrified. Go figure.

2. Prepare your strategy

Ok, so you're nervous. That's ok. It's fine. It's normal. You still need to have a strategy once you're up there.

First step? Rehearse what you're going to say, at least in the beginning. Have the first few paragraphs of your presentation memorized.

Shaky hands or twitchy body? Hold onto the back of a chair or the podium. As you get more comfortable, you can ease up.

Before you actually start your talk, get a good look at the audience. Smile, say thank you, share a funny story, and have at it.

Bottom line? Don't go in cold until you're a pro.

3. Use visuals only when needed

Do not read from slides. Repeat: do not read from slides. If you are using PowerPoint or Google Slides, make sure that your slides don't obscure your points, have as few words as possible, and have relevant images. 

If your slides do have words, remember that people's eyes scan the slide up and down, as opposed to reading left to right.

Keep it simple and make your images zing!

4. Check out other presenters' work

At the next presentation you attend, take notes not just on the presentation, but on the presenter's style. Where did they stand? What made you want to listen? Did you find the slides interesting or dull? Think about what you liked and what could have been improved.

5. Know your audience

General rule of thumb: unless you're presenting to other PhD students with the same level of understanding that you have on a topic, prepare your presentation as if you're presenting this subject to your grandparents, provided, of course, they have no idea what you're talking about. 

Don't take for granted that your audience knows your process. Do take for granted that your audience will likely enjoy a personal, relevant story. 

Consider the questions that you might hear. Fellow PhD candidates might ask some in-depth questions. Be ready. Elementary school students might also ask in-depth questions, but in a different way. Be prepared not just to share your work, but to tailor it to whomever is listening.

6. Ask for feedback

If you can, do a trial run with your advisor and some peers. Ask for input, for help, for criticism. If you can't ask for feedback before the actual event, ask someone you trust who's there for their honest feedback. Why? So you can do better next time.

Yes, there's always a next time. And you can always do better!

Do you have experience public speaking? Let us know in the comments!

ArticleEducationStudent Tips
Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.
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