Every once in a while you are forced to abandon your comfort zone.  You have to leave behind your comfortable territory of the lab bench or your desk in the reading room and stand up in front of a group of people.

Then, you will be expected to deliver – the department seminar, a progress report talk, a talk at a conference or the most terrifying of all: your PhD defense.

Universities don’t often spend much money or resources in equipping their researchers with presentation skills. They assume this skill is something that comes naturally, or is something that we will develop over time as we gain experience. While some people are gifted with innate presentation skills, most of us need to take some initiative to improve our presentations.

One of the hardest things is trying to deal with those little voices in our heads that express our insecurities.

Here is some advice on how to overcome or at least manage those insecurities that often arise while giving a talk.

“I’m not going to be able to say a word and I will have to leave the room”

Adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones that helped our ancestors when running away from large man-eating beasts, are responsible for the times you break into a cold sweat prior to giving a talk.

Several things will help you get over this stage-fright:

  • Prepare your presentation well in advance so you have enough time to practice.
  • Practice your presentation, paying particular attention to transitions.
  • Spare yourself unnecessary stress and arrive at the talk location well in advance.  Having extra time before your presentation will allow you to scope out your audience and get to grips with the technical equipment in the room (projector, audio system, pointer…).
  • Remember to breathe – just before you start take a few deep breaths and concentrate on the air moving in and out.  This will clear your mind and help you focus.
  • Start your talk with a line you have memorized and could say in your sleep.  This will help you flow into the talk.

“Wow, the big fish in my field is here and he/she is going to know that I didn’t read the 1000 papers related to my research”

In your field of study there are the typical papers, which everybody cites, and then many other not so important ones. People don’t expect you to know the small papers but you should read and summarize the findings of the top ten papers in your field. Do this around one week before your talk, and you will feel much more confident.

“I am not going to be able to answer any questions properly”

Apart from (hopefully) your supervisor and a couple other PIs, you are the expert in your topic. Keep this in mind when people ask you questions and have the confidence to be able to say that you don’t know the answer but you will check it out. You do know many other things and the fact that you don’t know this one doesn’t take away from that. If you are asked a question that stumps you, make sure to note it and look it up in time for any future talks.

“They are going to ask me about the weak point of my research and I will look stupid”

The weak points of your research are usually just as obvious to you. In any case, if somebody notices, that doesn’t mean that everything else you have done is not valuable. Also, you can use this question to mention that this will be “future work”. Have answers prepared for the really obvious questions.

“I am going to say something that makes no sense, because I don’t feel comfortable using a second language”

Scores of researchers find themselves having to present in their non-native language.  It can happen that you will say something that makes no sense because of language issues.  Even native speakers can slip-up and say the wrong word.  However, this will probably just give people a good laugh. Also, if you keep a good sense of humor about yourself, people might remember you and the topic of your talk in the future. Who knows, maybe this is what gets you the next job!

The most important thing to remember?  People are there because they want to learn about your research; they will never ridicule you for nervous mistakes.

So take a deep breath, relax and prepare to wow them with your research.


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