It is a common occurrence in graduate school for students to engage in public speaking. Whether it's delivering a paper at a conference, defending a thesis in front of a committee or simply presenting ideas in a classroom setting, speaking in front of others is an unavoidable component of higher education for many students. And for a number of people, the prospect of speaking in front of others is a daunting one. As political consultant Marjorie Lee North explained, writing in an article published by Harvard University, public speaking is an incredibly common phobia, in the same vein as a fear of spiders or a fear of flying.
If you are applying to or are about to enter a graduate school program, and the prospect of public speaking has you riddled with anxiety, fear not: There are a number of simple yet effective ways that you can begin to overcome your reservations about addressing a large crowd and deliver a memorable presentation. Some of the best strategies include:
1. Understand your audience
The most important first step in public speaking preparation is ensuring that you understand your audience. As Lee North explained, if you have a clear idea about your audience's familiarity with the topic you are about to discuss, such as their average age, professions and so on, you'll be more equipped to prepare a presentation that is suitable. For example, if you are presenting a paper to a conference of graduate students and academics, it's likely that your audience will have at least some knowledge of your topic, meaning that your presentation can be more nuanced and sophisticated. However, if you are a delivering a lecture to a class of undergraduates, for example, it's likely that your presentation will have to be more elementary.
"Preparation is absolutely vital to success."
2. Prepare extensively
Preparation is absolutely vital to success. This means writing and then rewriting your presentation and going over it enough times to ensure that you are comfortable with what you are saying. Indeed, it helps to become so familiar with the topic at hand that you will be able to anticipate any questions that the audience may ask. Failing to prepare properly, or "winging it" can lead to a poorer and less sophisticated performance, the careers site Monster argued. The source interviewed Scott Elbin who works as a leadership coach. He elaborated on this crucial point.
"Too often, speakers are not as effective as they could be because they haven't given enough thought or practice to what they really want to say and how they want to say it," he explained.
3. Ensure the room is ready
As detailed by Fortune staff writer Deborah Jacobs, it is helpful to ensure that the room you are presenting in is ready for your presentation. This means making sure that all the digital equipment you need, whether it's a laptop or projector, are all there and working. After all, the last thing you want is for a problem with technology to disrupt your presentation. It is crucial to make all of these checks in advance of your talk – discovering a problem with the audiovisual equipment moments you are due to go on is stressful and can lead to a poor performance. Ideally, arrive several hours before you are due to speak, so any issues can be identified and then remedied in plenty of time. It is also important to ensure that special requests for audiovisual equipment needs are submitted well in advance of your presentation. If you need a projector at a conference panel, for example, be sure to check with organizers whether this is possible. You shouldn't just assume that the venue will have everything you need.
4. Practice slow breathing
While feeling nervous and anxious is perhaps unavoidable, there are ways to calm your nerves while talking. As explained by Psychology Today, one effective way to calm yourself down is to learn how to take slow, deep and measured breaths. This helps reduce anxiety by slowing down your heart rate. The source explained that there are smartphone apps available to help you master this helpful physiological technique.
5. Speak at a measured pace
Be sure not to speak too quickly and rush through your important points. Not only does it come across as unprofessional, it also means that your audience may miss some of the crucial information that you are trying to deliver. Speak clearly by projecting your voice, and deliver the presentation at a measured pace – not too fast and not too slow. The Telegraph interviewed Julie Holness, CEO of Speakers Trust, a non-profit concerned with public speaking education, who elaborated on the importance of speaking clearly.
"Speaking in a clear, measured way will give you an air of confidence and authority – and you will calm yourself in the process," she explained. Holness also stressed that it is important to not be afraid of pausing. Using pauses is a great way to underscore a point and let it resonate with your audience.
6. Keep it engaging
As Jacobs explained, while it is likely that the audience at your presentation has an interest in and knowledge about your topic, it is still important to work hard to keep them interested in what you have to say. There are several ways to keep talks engaging, including using hand gestures, jokes and even personal anecdotes to help support a point you are trying to make. This approach will work better in some situations than others. For example, using a humorous story might not be appropriate at certain academic conferences. The point remains, however – the more engaging your presentation, the more likely your audience will respond positively. Jacobs interviewed a lawyer who routinely engages in public speaking, Conrad Teitell, who spoke to the importance of delivering a presentation that is exciting and memorable.
"There are no dull topics–there are only dull speakers. Most talks fail because they are not interesting. The way you make something interesting is to tell a story, an anecdote, or read a poem," he explained.
With an engaging presentation you'll likely notice that your audience responds well, alleviating your anxiety and worries in the process.
7. Enjoy yourself
A simple yet effective tip is to enjoy yourself. Chances are you are delivering a presentation on a topic that is interesting and inspiring to you, so channel that enthusiasm and energy into your speech. Lee North also stressed that it is important not to be too hard on yourself, as no presentation will be 100 percent perfect. Accept that there will likely be small mishaps and go with the flow. You'll feel more relaxed as a consequence.