Speaking and Nerves

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Credit: Max Pixel

I just gave my third talk of the year, so this marks the half way point as I will do 6 events, total. This included my first opening keynote, and the largest audience I have spoken in front of yet (>700). Now I have a break until September. It seems like a good time to talk about pre-talk anxiety.

Spoiler: I still get it, bad.

I rarely sleep well before a talk. If I speak in the afternoon, I can never eat lunch. When I spoke in the morning it felt like I had a fun choice between vomiting and keeling over on stage (actually neither of these things happened…)

How do I deal with it?

  • First, I try and embrace it as a positive thing.
  • Second, I try to channel it productivly.
  • Third, I try and mitigate things that have the potential to derail me.

So… how can anxiety be a positive thing? Well I don’t get anxious about things I don’t care about. I get anxious about giving a talk because I care a lot about giving a good talk. At most events I find someone who frankly I think should be a lot more anxious about what they are doing than they seemed to be. Maybe they didn’t think through their jokes, or changed something in one part of their talk without thinking about the rest of it, or maybe they just didn’t prepare enough.

How can anxiety be productive?Β When I’m worrying about a talk I’m giving I have two main options. One: I can hide from that anxiety in something else (aka procrastinate). Two: I can spend time preparing it. I always try to choose option two (I’m human, so sometimes I choose option 1, and then I at least try to embrace productive procrastination). One thing that can happen with this though is, preparing too much or too intensely (normally a lot of low value preparation) such that I start to hate my own talk.

How do you mitigate surprises?Β Through trial and error I’ve discovered some things that throw me off. I don’t take flights that get in late anymore, because when they get delayed a morning talk is a horrible thing. I always check the hotel before I arrive, because it sucks to arrive and discover it’s horrible. I aim to arrive at the venue with plenty of time to check the AV set up just so I know what I’m getting. I keep my slides in the cloud but make sure they are there on my machine too.

I throw money at things that will result in lower stress levels. Things I have done recently for talks I’m giving: upgraded flights because I was flying non-Star Alliance and I wanted a lounge and space to think. Booked an expensive hotel – I discovered the day before I was giving a talk that I was booked into a terrible hotel far from the venue, so I just booked another one instead. This kind of thing makes speaking more expensive, but it also makes it possible. If I let myself get so stressed out and miserable I would probably perform badly and decide I never wanted to speak again. It’s better (for me) and affordable (for me) to manage my stress levels by ensuring my required level of comfort is met (or exceeded). Of course for some events this is a given from the organisers, and occasionally a bunch of hassle for me and I never have to do those events again.

It feels scary to come out and say that public speaking terrifies me (although I have done this before). But I hate hearing from people who think their fear rules them out in some way, rather than makes them human. Speak, or don’t – I believe in choices, not pushing anyone into anything. But fear is not failure, it’s just information – and very, very normal.

4 thoughts on “Speaking and Nerves

  1. Before my talks, I always get that moment where I start questioning myself. What’s the point of all of this? Am I the right person to give this talk? Will someone think that I’m not good or qualified enough to give this talk? And the list goes on and on. Especially when I wake up in the middle of the night.
    The one thing that really helps me when pre-talk anxiety kicks in is that I try to remember why I do this. We all have our reasons to do public speaking. I try to focus on that.
    The other thing is that I try to remind myself that feeling that you get when the talk is done. That moment when you feel euphoric when the talk is done and that the stress is gone is totally worth it and I try to focus on that instead.
    Once again, thanks for sharing your experience, it makes me feel like I’m not alone ! πŸ™‚

  2. > That moment when you feel euphoric when the talk is done and that the stress is gone is totally worth it

    Oh yeah!! So true πŸ™‚

    And you are so welcome πŸ™‚ Thanks for reading!

  3. “I don’t get anxious about things I don’t care about.” This stood out to me because it echoes something my undergrad research advisor said. He told me that, even after 25+ years of teaching, he still got nervous before every lecture. The day he wasn’t nervous would be a sign of trouble, because it would mean he didn’t care. So here’s to being to anxiety, I suppose… πŸ˜‰

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