Nerves? We (Nearly) All Have Them

Recently I had occasion to watch a young adult preparing to make a presentation. They were incredibly nervous, but when it came to standing in front of the audience little of that was evident. Just a small amount of self-deprecating humour, enough to get the audience on side. On the other hand, I’ve seen apparently confident students suddenly completely lose their nerve and dry up, or at least falter and not make the most of an opportunity to shine. It’s tricky. Even at my stage of life I can sometimes be overwhelmed by anxiety, usually when it’s a case of asking questions at the end of a talk or, increasingly, when I’m chairing a panel and know it’s my responsibility to keep the questions going if the audience members aren’t being forthcoming.

If you are setting out on your career and feel assailed by trepidation, I think it is worth remembering that you are not alone. Different people may be fazed by different situations, but it is a rare person who never has doubts at all. In my experience of giving talks, one of the worst audiences to face is that of your peers, colleagues and friends. I know I am not unusual in feeling like this. Talking to strangers, whom you may never see again, perhaps feels as if there is less to lose than talking to your head of department, your supervisor and the student next door who you are trying to get to know better or collaborate with. These personal interactions may be damaged if you make a fool of yourself, or at least, it’s easy to believe that. I don’t think that worry ever completely goes away.

Undoubtedly there are things you can do to reduce the odds of it going horribly wrong. If you feel well-prepared then there is a better chance you won’t get caught out by others or catch yourself out. I always used to practice my entire seminar, talking to myself quietly but out loud. By verbalising what you want to say, you both practice your logic and fluency, as you move from slide to slide, but you can also check your timing. There is nothing more annoying than a speaker who drones on well past the allotted time span. Audiences tend to be more forgiving of the speaker who stops early, although that may just leave more time for questions, hostile or otherwise.

Fluency is important. Some scientific words are right tongue twisters, and it is all too easy to read a word to yourself and never articulate it out loud. Suddenly you realise you’re going to have to utter this in public and it can make things much worse for the rest of the talk if you trip over it. I well remember a student, back in the days when I worked on liquid crystalline polymers, who consistently fluffed the word ‘anisotropic’. This was particularly unfortunate as it would probably turn up quite a few times in any given talk. My own bête noire was the Greek alphabet (this was mainly a problem in my teaching) and I was, not infrequently, reduced to referring to a symbol as ‘squiggle’. Why I couldn’t keep the names straight I don’t know, or follow my own advice and check it before I started the lecture in which I had to talk about some relevant equation.

Preparing for any obvious questions coming your way at the end is also clearly a good thing to do, but it’s all but impossible to predict everything that might come up. Some of the most difficult questions to answer are the ones when the questioner has completely missed the point. The question may make no sense to you, unless you can unpick their incomprehension, or alternatively the only simple answer is to say ‘you’ve got it all wrong/you weren’t listening’, which may seem just a tad aggressive. At times, the best thing to do is to suggest you drill down into the detail in private later, so that the rest of the audience is spared the put-down.

My second key piece of advice concerns laser pointers. As I say, all of us can get nervous and the nerves may lead to shaking hands. If you have a laser pointer in your hand, such shaking may be massively magnified on the screen, often to the extent of making it impossible to highlight what you intend. Depending on the layout of the room, I think there are two obvious solutions. If there is a lectern you can conveniently use, then it’s perfectly possible to rest your hand on this in a very casual way, which should completely mask the real purpose.  However, few standard academic rooms lend themselves to this, although lecture theatres may, so an alternative solution has to be found. I have found it works well to hold the one wrist with the other hand, which steadies things enormously, but still is pretty unobvious.

Finally, where should you look? Again, the lay-out of the room, the lighting and the nature of the audience all make a difference but, whatever you do, do not look at your feet most of the time nor spend the entire talk with your back to the audience. They may deduce that you’re shy and nervous, but it will not improve the reception of what you have to say. Sometimes it is possible to find someone who regularly nods (but not because they are nodding off), or who smiles and laughs at any jokes you may introduce. (As an aside, I would say you have to have a lot of aplomb to carry jokes off, although self-deprecating humour may work.) Those people are worth a frequent glance, just to prove you’re looking at the audience. But if everything seems somewhat flat and no one catches your eye as being particularly interested, I have always found looking at the wall at the back a good trick. Most people won’t realise that you aren’t looking at anyone, they’ll just know you’re not looking at them. This is particularly true if the lights have been dimmed.

Nerves aren’t anything to be ashamed about, but it is as well to reduce their impact and so to build your own self-confidence, recognizing that they may never completely disappear. Good luck!



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