Four ways to defeat public speaking anxiety

Even experienced academics can get anxious before public speaking. Fikrican Kayıkçı suggests four ways to approach speeches with confidence

Fikrican Kayıkçı 's avatar
7 May 2024
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Many people find public speaking the most difficult type of communication. Delivering a speech in an academic context can be even more daunting because it requires specific communication skills and confidence in the topic. How can we rid ourselves of these anxieties to speak clearly and confidently?

Based on my experiences as an early career academic, here are four strategies to reduce anxiety around speaking in public so that you can share your knowledge with the world.

Be prepared

Before you step in front of the audience, research the subject of your speech in detail. Make sure you’re completely comfortable with the topic. Also, clearly put forward the main ideas of the speech and draw up a plan, divided into sections such as beginning, body and conclusion. Not only will this make you feel comfortable and in control during your speech, it will also help the audience to understand it better.

But even when you’re fully prepared, you can experience problems. At the start of my academic career, I had the chance to take part in a symposium as a speaker. I enthusiastically prepared my 40-minute speech, without knowing there was a 20-minute time limit. On the day, the initiative of the session chair and my on-the-spot adjustments meant I completed my talk in 30 minutes. I learned an important lesson that day, and now I always check the length of time I have to speak in. Only then can I determine the content of the speech. 

In order to speak effortlessly, it’s also useful to practice a few days before delivering the speech. This will help you see your shortcomings. You can even practice in front of a mirror to learn how to control your body language. Rehearsing with friends can be beneficial, as listening to their critiques will help you improve your delivery, and watching speeches by people with good public speaking skills can also help. 

The most effective method I’ve found is to record myself and then watch the video back to identify and correct my errors. Preparing in these ways could help alleviate the anxieties you have about public speaking. 

Know your audience

Find out about the audience you’ll be addressing. Their level of education, age range and expectations can be very important for the reception of your speech. For example, when speaking to only lawyers or law academics, the language you would use should not be the same as a seminar with participants from different disciplines. At a multidisciplinary seminar I attended last year, I made sure to use language accessible to everyone so that the audience could easily follow my speech. I could see from the audience’s response that they understood me, and that minimised my anxiety.

Use visual aids

Conveying information just by talking can be boring for both the audience and speaker. Why not enrich your speech with visual aids such as simple, understandable slides, graphs or images? The colours and styles of the visuals and texts you’re using should be compatible with each other and the information used in the graphics should be up to date. You can use a visual hierarchy to emphasise important messages, such as the title, sub-heading and the key content of the presentation. 

Create a conversation with your audience

Interactive speeches, where the audience can participate in the conversation, are much more interesting than monologue-style communication. Be open to questions and comments from the audience. It will allow you to see the topic you’re talking about from different perspectives, but will also be useful for improving your future public speaking experiences.

Perhaps play a “get to know you” game with the audience at the beginning of your speech. While giving a speech recently, I started by asking everyone to introduce themselves and their field of study. Not only did this create a bond between me and the audience, it also made it easier for them to ask questions.  

Academics can be well-versed in their subject, with decades of experience, and still have difficulty conveying their knowledge due to their anxiety around public speaking. Isn’t that a tragedy? But by putting into practice my advice, public speaking can become an opportunity rather than a problem. 

Fikrican Kayıkçı is a PhD student and teaches undergraduate courses at the Faculty of Law at Near East University.

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