Monday, September 30, 2013

Public Speaking: A Fear-Conquering Perspective

By Hannah Williams

The fear—and general lack of composure—that often comes with verbal types of communication is a common anxiety. When we’re writing alone, we know that our audience (like our professors or peers) is not so immediate. Commanding the attention at the front of the room or the head of the seminar table is a different story.

We’ve all had to do some sort of oral presentation at some point or another: presenting your paper to the class, or at an academic conference, or simply being responsible for leading discussion for one of your courses. It can be intimidating! However, I think there are few things to keep in mind that may ward off some of the verbal communication blues:

  • Oral communication and verbal communication are both performances. Written communication is like putting on a performance for yourself and your professor. However, you get to write it alone without any immediate anxiety-inducing social pressures. Still, each time you change a word and rearrange a sentence, you’re both performing as well as keeping the performance as a whole (your completed written assignment) in mind.  It takes practice. Some performances will go better than others. Like any type of performance, you’re working toward a goal, such as a paper deadline or particular event. This performative nature is relevant to both written and verbal communication.
  • Okay—but you have to speak in front of the whole class, right? Although you eventually have to share your work in a group setting, it’s okay to practice by yourself. (Of course, if you have friends or family who are willing to let you read their paper or discuss your topic in front of them, and you feel this is a good method for you—go for it.) I tend to prefer to read to myself aloud—especially with whatever will serve as my final draft. It may feels strange to read a paper aloud to yourself, but I get to test out different methods of verbal strategy. As I’m reading my work aloud with nobody else around, I’m able to spot awkward wording, poor transitions, and other important issues. I also get to try out different ways of emphasizing certain points or phrases that I feel will best convey my ideas.
  • Pace yourself. If you have ten minutes to present, and your stopwatch says you’ve only spoken for six and a half minutes, you may be reading too fast. If you’re up for it, you can immediately read through it again and practice your pacing. Talking too fast conveys nervousness, which is not fun for you or your audience!
  • Better overly prepared than, well, you know. I often don't allow myself to say, "Oh, I'll just wing it." It never turns out well for me. Notes, lists, and outlines might save you from the dreaded awkward pause or losing your train of thought. With enough practice, you won't feel like you have to depend entirely on the outline, so your presentation (or performance!) will look natural.
  • I know this platitude has been tossed around quite a bit, but don’t let them see you sweat. Once again, this is where the idea of performance comes in handy. I am not exactly a huge fan of public speaking, but if I treat it like a short performance, my priorities become more about producing and then practicing share-worthy work so that I feel proud of myself for getting through it!

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