In one of my earlier posts, I discussed what it’s like giving a paper as a sufferer of anxiety. In that blog, I briefly talked about some of the tips my counsellor gave me at the time, and how I got through giving my first talk. I thought it might be helpful to expand more on this, not only for people like me with mental health conditions, but also for anyone who has to do public speaking – something I’m sure very few people actually enjoy the thought of. So, here’s my top 5 tips for delivering papers!
1. Practice, practice, practice
This one probably goes without saying, but no post about delivering papers would be complete without it. Before I gave my paper, I practised it to time over and over again. This meant that I was confident about filling the time slot I had been given without being too far under or over, and, most importantly, that I had it vaguely memorised, so that I was able to look up from my paper at the audience. In the same vein, it might also help you to try and anticipate any questions you might be asked, and make notes about how you would answer them. If nothing else, practising and preparing answers means that you can go in knowing you’re well-prepared, which should help alleviate some of the anxieties.
2. Remind yourself why you’re doing it
There’s a lot of reasons why you might want to give a paper. Perhaps it’s something you want to add to your academic CV, that will help you land your dream job; or a personal fear that you want to conquer; or just a topic that you feel really passionately about, and you want to share your knowledge and passion with others. There should always be a personal reason why you’re doing it (if there isn’t one, and you’re simply doing it for someone else, you might want to rethink your priorities). If you do have a reason though, remind yourself of it when the nerves start to get the better of you.
3. Don’t let your nerves become all-consuming
This one is all about perspective. As I mentioned in my previous post, one way to get some perspective is to imagine your paper going as badly as it possibly could – to the point where you’re expelled from university or arrested (it’s up to you what you imagine you might do to get to that point). This helps you know that even if you mess up a few words, stutter, say ‘um’ a few times, or any other thing you’re worried about, it will never be as catastrophic as this imagined worst-case scenario. Small mistakes become much less of a big deal, and it’s a reminder that everyone giving papers (unless they’re superhuman), will make some kind of an error. It’s not the end of the world if you do, too.
If you struggle with this technique, a different way of calming your nerves and giving yourself confidence is to do the opposite, by picturing your paper going the best it possibly could go – perhaps you get a standing ovation at the end, or you’re immediately inundated with calls from publishers desperate to print your paper. Again, make the scenario as outlandish as you want – it will help you to focus on the positives, rather than spiralling into picturing everything that could go wrong and becoming a bundle of anxiety.
4. Have a powerpoint on hand, just in case
This is more relevant to the arts, where the majority of papers I’ve seen given don’t have accompanying powerpoint presentations – often, there’s just not much you can show on slides. When I gave my paper, I had the same issue, so I decided a powerpoint wasn’t really worth doing (plus it was another thing to think about, and I was nervous enough as it was). I had also checked with the organisers to see whether the other speakers were using slides, and was confident that I wouldn’t be the only person going without. It turned out, I was, and with each speaker who loaded up their slides in preparation for their talk, I got more and more nervous, until I knew I was going to be the only one with nothing for the audience to look at, except me. Now, for every paper I give in the future, I’m going to make sure I have at least something on hand just in case, even if it’s only one image to have in the background. Having said that, it wasn’t the end of the world, and I received compliments about my paper regardless – so if you do find yourself in the same position, don’t panic!
5. Imagine afterwards
One of the worst things about giving papers is the anticipation. You might struggle to sleep the night before because you’re worrying, or feel physically ill the day of, because you can’t stop thinking about the paper. I found that an effective way to combat this is to instead try and picture what you will do and how you will feel afterwards. Imagine the relief of it being over no matter how it went, being able to say ‘I did it!’, and how proud of yourself you will feel. You can also make plans for how you will reward yourself – maybe you’ll go out for a meal and celebrate with some drinks, or get a takeaway and watch Netflix in your pyjamas. Either way, try and focus on what will happen after the paper, rather than the paper itself.
I’m by no means an expert in giving papers, but I am an expert in anxiety – and some of these things really helped me to be able to overcome my fears, and to be able to speak in front of an audience for the first time since school. I hope that for anyone who suffers from nerves or anxiety about giving papers or public speaking, at least one of these tips might help.
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