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5 tips for overcoming public speaking anxiety at scientific conferences

before and after anxiety of public speaking

Scientific conferences are among the most exciting times in your research career. With so many like-minded individuals gathered all in one place, it’s a fantastic time to socialise and meet new people with common research interests. And you simply can’t go wrong with the after-parties where there’s great food and drink. 🥂

But while it’s great to be a conference attendee, there’s an infinitely elevated experience if you come as a presenter.

Whether you come with an epic scientific poster or a shiny set of slides, presenting your research will allow you to contribute to knowledge exchange at your conference. Now that’s simply what science and academia is all about, am I right?

Though, not everyone starts out as a confident presenter. In fact, LOTS of people have a fear of public speaking. 😨

Jerry Seinfeld quote about fear of public speaking
Now that's a crazy thought!

Cold hands? Check. 🥶

Shaky knees? Double check. 😖

Scared of question time? Check, check, check! 🙋🏻

It’s completely normal to get the chills before you present your work. You’re not alone there. In fact, even the world’s most seasoned public speakers (and even actors) need strategies to rev-themselves-up before they take center-stage, which is exactly what we’ll be sharing with you in this blog post.

Let’s learn to deal with public speaking anxiety, one step at a time. 👇

1. Practice (and preparation) makes progress, not perfect!

One of the things we idealise in research is that we want everything to go PERFECTLY. The hard truth is, well, most things likely won’t. 🤷🏻

exploding science experiment
... just like some of my old experiments.

And when things don’t go according to plan, that’s when the feeling of worry sinks in.

The same goes for presenting your work. Perhaps a video won’t play on a particular slide, or you lose your train of thought mid-speech, or maybe you get a really difficult question that you weren’t prepared to answer.

You start to panic. Crickets start chirping. Oh no.

Preparing adequately will help minimise the chances of these things happening. For example: try out your slides on the conference PC before your presentation starts, nail down what you want to say, and maybe even try out our tips for answering questions.

And never forget—the audience won’t actually mind if something goes a little bit wrong, because nobody is perfect and they’re there to support you!

Don't practice until you get it right—practice until you can't get it wrong. 💫

2. Visualise success, not sabotage

Repeat after me: “I know my research project better than anyone else.” 💪🏻

While your supervisors may have a wealth of knowledge about the field, remember that you are the expert when it comes to YOUR project and experiments. You've delved into every aspect, analysed the nuances, and crafted a narrative that only you can deliver with conviction. So, gear up for greatness and envision yourself delivering a stellar presentation. But let's not get carried away with the elusive idea of perfection. Instead, focus on visualising ‘success’ — not only by getting through your slides or poster from start-to-finish, but also by engaging your audience and conveying your research with clarity and passion.

positive thinking for public speaking

Positive thinking isn't just a feel-good mantra; it's a powerful tool that can help alleviate anxiety. Embrace the confidence that comes from knowing your material inside out, and channel that energy into a presentation that leaves a lasting impact. You've got this!

3. Breathe in, breathe out

Research shows how controlling your breathing can really create a positive impact in your psychophysiology which works by regulating your carbon dioxide levels. But even without the evidence, I’m sure you’re not too surprised that breathing can help you to calm down before a presentation.

One particular strategy we strongly advocate is box breathing. Box breathing is a breathing technique used by the United Stated Navy SEALs to overcome high-stress situations, allowing them to calm down and think clearly.

Box breathing involves 4 counts of breathing in, 4 counts of holding your breath, 4 counts of exhaling, and 4 final counts of holding after you exhale. This cycle of slow breaths and exhales helps to also slow down your thoughts, manage your adrenaline, and reduce stress. You can repeat it as many times as you feel comfortable. 👍

box breathing diagram sequence

This technique (had I known it at the time), would have really helped me out during my 1-year PhD major review presentation. I was so nervous that I drew a mind blank only two slides into my 45-minute slot! 😱

But while box breathing is great before you present, what if you need a breath in the middle of your presentation? Then in that case, you may not have time for the whole box breathing sequence. Instead, try out a physiological sigh. Simply, it’s a double inhale followed by an extended exhale. You’ll feel the difference immediately!

physiological sigh diagram sequence

4. Add tasteful humour to your presentation

Injecting a dose of humour into your research presentation can be a game-changer in engaging your audience. While data slides are essential, they don't have to be dry and monotonous. Consider adding a touch of satire or a humorous anecdote related to a piece of data that took months to generate (been there myself). I used this nifty technique during a 5-minute flash conference talk during the second year of my PhD, which got a good number of giggles from the audience and resulted in a presentation prize! 🏆

Humour not only lightens the mood but also humanises your presentation, making it more relatable. After all, everyone at the conference knows what it’s like to be a researcher. 👨🏻‍🔬

the feeling of statistical significance in scientific data

For poster presentations, you can play around with catchy headings or incorporate subtle puns to add a playful element. These small touches can evoke a smile or even a chuckle from your audience, creating a more enjoyable and memorable experience for everyone involved. After all, a little laughter goes a long way in making your presentation stand out!

Depending on the conference audience however, you will need to gauge whether your sense of humour is appropriate. There’s a time and place for everything!

5. Give yourself a post-presentation pat on the back

It takes a lot of courage to present your research, and that needs to be commended and properly celebrated! As soon as the poster session, presentation slot, or conference ends, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back and reward yourself with whatever works for you (a massage, perhaps?).

Then, reflect on how your presentation went by asking yourself:

I did good today

Reviewing your own work is all part of the process, and identifying what you learned and gained from your presentation will help ease any anxious feelings the next time around. Use your self-review to refine your future presentations and grow as an effective communicator.

Let’s confidently prepare for your next presentation!

Now that you've learned how to deal with presentation anxiety like a pro, you can take your presentation-building skills to the next level with Animate Your Science!

Our training courses cover everything from scientific poster design and illustration to video creation and even SciComm workshops. Whether you're looking to enhance your visual storytelling or master the art of effective communication, we've got you covered. Visit our training webpage to explore our courses and start your journey towards impactful science communication today! 🚀



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