Anxiety: the sum of all your fears

Flickr. Neil.Moralee

 

Fearful speaking in front of others?

First find out the reason why you are nervous. Then get rid of that reason.

Here is a catalog of the possible reasons, and remember, more than one reason may apply: anxiety is the sum of all your fears.

  • I am not prepared. I had too little time to get ready, I rushed through the preparation, I had no time to rehearse. I finished my slides the morning of the event and I don’t remember how many layers are on some slides so I have to look at them to know when the slide changes, etc…  There is no substitute for preparation and preparation encompasses more than just rehearsing (Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps) l. You can’t wing it, Mr Icarus, because the heat of the moment will burn the wax that loosely ties your wings to your body. Sorry.
  • I am the center of attention. Of course you are. They came to you because you have something they need. That’s why they are looking at you. So please, turn your marine binoculars around a second, what do you see? People have  shrunk to a size where you can see them all. They are all in the same boat. You’re the captain of the boat and they are your passengers. They have boarded your ship, and they will disembark after your talk. They are your temporary guests and you want to make sure they enjoy the journey. Show you are worth your stripes, and beam that captain smile of yours to inspire confidence in you. You know how to behave like a host, don’t you? Surely you have hosted friends and colleagues at home. Behave like a host, whose relaxed attitude comes from expertise and preparedness.
  • My boss or my employees are in the room. So they are, so they are. Is that why you have to behave like Wonder Woman or Superman? The way you see it, any fragility will be mocked and you will fall off the pedestal after you have worked so much to hoist your statuesque figure in place. But the Superman costume only fits Christopher Reeve. And the Wonder Woman suit was tailored for Linda Carter, so leave it on the rack. You are frail, you are human, you may make mistakes, but the stress caused by the acute awareness of potential mistakes brings them on more surely than losing the jackpot. Get your boss and your employees out of your system. For example, rehearse in front of them prior to your talk. Involve them in the process. They will learn that you have gone through great pains to make this presentation a success, and they probably will give you useful feedback in the process. Otherwise, as you become aware live on stage of a mistake that your boss of employees have surely noticed (they probably haven’t), you will not recover your composure. You will crash and burn.
  • I’ve got too much to lose if I fail. Money, career, prestige, you name your poison. For it is your poison if it is so addictive that you turn to excipients to boost your confidence, or you let your fear pay allegiance to these monsters. Remember the book of Ecclesiastes: it is all vanity, and vanity is for the bonfire.
  • I look awful. Yes you do, if you say so. And even the great Pascal would agree since he wrote “The perceptions of our senses are always right”. So what? Has your science anything to do with the length of your nose? The buckling of your legs? The gap in your teeth? The color of your shoes? The size of your belt? Is the audience attending your talk with the specific intent to be repulsed because your reputation as a frankenstein exceeds that of the horror movie? So stop that nonsense and focus on your objective of helping others with their scientific problems. Do not focus on self-perceived crimes against the self-perceived canons of prettiness or handsomeness, because, besides grooming, there is nothing you can do about how you look, but there is much you can do to make yourself attractive to others by your scientific talent and expertise.
  • They will embarrass me with their questions. I see. You fear not having a ready answer, or a convincing answer. Yet you did the research, the audience did not. You conducted the experiments, chose the most adequate methods, carefully selected the data. From it you analytically excised the supportive evidence that warrants your conclusions, and you tentatively proposed your inner convictions in gut-spilling tables and figures. The audience did not. And if some force you into declarative yes or no statements, it is not to trick you; it is to assess the usefulness of your findings and how well they would apply to their problems. In a way, their questions invite you to their research patch. If you and they work on the same patch, your fears are groundless. You are the expert. If their patch is distant from yours, you cannot commit because you simply don’t know. And it is fine to say so without feeling embarrassed. Scientific embarrassment is being caught cheating, or not being able to justify choices (data, method, or conclusions). Only then, is there reason to be afraid of questions. But since you are fully accountable, it is not the case for you. So any fear is misguided, particularly the unreasonable fear of having to say “I don’t know”. Next time you have to say “I don’t know”, finish that sentence with what you know that is related to the question with something like “This we don’t know; However, we do know that…“. You will be seen as helpful instead of ignorant.

In conclusion, analyze your fear. You will learn much about yourself and, with that, you will find the way to master your nerves.

What can the scientist who presents learn from Churchill (Part 2)

Are you frightened to speak because you have an accent or a speech impediment? Consider Churchill’s problem, as described by his granddaughter Celia Sandys in the book “We shall not fail”.

“Churchill had to overcome a speech impediment that might have silenced many prospective public speakers.[…] Churchill spent countless hours trying to get his tongue around sentences featuring the dreaded letter s. […] Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed and the defect became his oral signature”

What struck me in that last sentence was the word fortunately. We think that our accent should be completely eradicated, but it the end, it reflects who we are, and testifies to our origins. I have a French accent and will always have it. It is not so strong that people can’t understand me. Sometimes, I even “turn it on” and slightly increase it because people find it charming.  Accent is good. It provides identity, and even charm. But if your accent is heavy, if it gets in the way of people understanding you, like Churchill, you have no choice but to practice and practice some more to lessen your accent. I often observe that researchers with a strong accent tend to speak their native language in their research lab, as well as watch TV programs and read newspapers in their native language. This prevents them from making rapid progress in their spoken English. Practice reshapes your mouth, lips, and jaws to make your foreign sounding English words sound English. Correcting an accent is done through speaking, and comparing your sounds with those of a native English speaker. Do not be fooled by the fact that your lab colleagues understand you. They have had months or years to get used to your accent. The audience you will face during your presentation will have had no time to get used to your accent.

“He began pacing about. Inspiration came and he began dictating, voice rising and falling, hands gesturing as if making the actual speech.”

Rehearsing your talk is never done silently in front of a computer screen. I witnessed ex-Apple Chairman, John Sculley, rehearse a talk in his Cupertino office. He was speaking aloud, gesturing, walking back in forth, stopping now and then only to press the spacebar of his Mac keyboard to go to the next slide. Words come to you in action. Speaking aloud with intonation and gestures helps you anchor your words to your body movements and convey your conviction and your passion. Rehearsing aloud, you create a path for the words to travel from your mind to your lips. Later, once the path is set, the same words will easily return and travel on the same path back to your lips.

By Jean-luc Lebrun