The fidgeting movements, the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the thoughts spinning in my head. I quietly begged the announcer: Please stop talking and just let me get up and start.
Because I knew I’d be fine in five minutes. By this point in my academic career—that was October 2015—I had given dozens of presentations to faculty audiences and felt very comfortable in the front of the room. But those first few minutes always made my blood pressure spike. Once they were behind me, I was able to relax and immerse myself in the experience.
However, this particular event had several factors that added to my stage fright. I was talking about my latest book in Mexico, in a different time zone. I was tired and stressed from traveling and negotiating in a foreign city. Most of my presentations so far have taken place in classrooms or small venues – here I was standing on a high stage in front of a large, tiered auditorium. I spoke in English to a Spanish-speaking audience, assisted by a translator. And the event was broadcast live. Any one of these factors alone would have gotten my heart rate up, but all of them combined supercharged the experience.
I got through that delicate first five minutes. But the stress of it all was a tipping point: I started solidifying some practices to better deal with presentation anxiety. Over the course of my career, I have delivered more than 200 lectures or faculty workshops in the United States and abroad. The advice I offer here is the result of a dozen years of thinking about the academic version of stage fright, experimenting with different approaches, and distilling these three simple strategies.
All three stem from the same simple idea: include a break in the first few minutes of a presentation so you can pause and catch your breath. I don’t mean the kind of short breaks you might take between sets. I mean a substantive pause where you can stop speaking—for at least 30 seconds—because you’ve given your audience something to look at, think about, or discuss.
Part of what inspires anxiety in a high-stakes presentation is the idea that you’ll have to talk for the next 30 or 40 minutes without being saved if something goes wrong. Just you, a stage, a waiting audience and a long block of time.
The Cure: Imagine not speaking for 45 minutes. Instead, calm your brain and nervous system by convincing them that you only have to get through the next five minutes. Whatever happens in those five minutes, good or bad, you then have a chance to regroup and start over.
So here are my three pausing strategies. They can be helpful if you are nervous about entering a classroom. But even if you’re an experienced teacher and the classroom no longer provokes such stress, you may still feel anxious when it comes time to “perform” in front of your peers or to speak publicly to non-academic audiences. These techniques can work whether you’re presenting in a workshop, on stage, or on Zoom.
Discussion Questions. Ken Bain, author of an influential book on teaching in higher education – What the best college teachers do (Harvard University Press) – Formerly led a highly successful and intellectually charged three-day workshop series based on his research. I occasionally acted as moderator at some of these events and was always in the room for its opening session. A ballroom would be filled with 100 faculty members seated at round tables, eager to hear from our host. Ken strolled to the front of the room, paused, and asked us a question: “I want you to think about the last time you learned something profound. What inspired you to do this? And how did you go about it?” After a few more upfront explanations, he paused and said, “Reach out to someone close to you and share your experience.”
The room came to life. This intriguing question kept me thinking about my own learning experiences and figuring out what to conclude from them. After this short break in discussion, Ken then started the lecture that we had expected. What made this technique work so well was the quality of the question. Ken knew he had a group of teachers in the room whose work revolved around designing courses, activities, and assignments for others. But with this question he provoked us all to reflect on our own experiences as learners.
I never asked Ken why he uses this strategy. But after watching him in action a few times, I realized that I could easily borrow his technique and use it to dispel my stage fright in the first few minutes of a presentation. I took a deep breath as my audience grappled with an intriguing question.
When using this tactic, make sure you find a question that resonates with your specific audience. For example, in a presentation on academic integrity, I would begin by asking the audience to think about the last time they were confronted with a case of student cheating. When the classroom was about attention and distraction, I invited listeners to think about the moments in their lives when they were most attentive—and what circumstances prompted those times of focus.
The goal is to get your audience to stop and think, so you can stop too — in this case, to calm your nerves.
Fascinating images. We are saturated with images today. Photos, memes and graphics litter our social media feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So there’s no shortage of potential material to distract your audience from looking at you expectantly while you get your act together.
If you start a presentation with a picture, you might be tempted to jump in and explain. Resist this instinct and stop instead. Ask the audience to take a minute and look closely at the picture. Count to 60 in your head. Then ask a question:
- “What’s the first thing that catches your eye?”
- “What lesson would you take from this picture?”
- “What do you think of when you see this picture?”
Ask for volunteers to share their answers. Or jump back by giving your answer to the question and then move on to your presentation.
I also like to use pictures as openers in the classroom. I project an image onto a large screen and have the students get up from their seats and come closer to examine it more closely, pointing out details to each other. Incorporating a little physical movement into the process helps divert the attention in the room away from me long enough to help me relax.
video clips. When I first knew that I would feel some anxiety in the first few minutes of a presentation, my first idea was to show a short video clip. Videos can essentially replicate the work of the first two strategies: you can use video to ask a persuasive question or invite audience observation. Such clips should not be too long – two to three minutes at most.
However, I have moved away from using video because the quality of available technology varies widely from venue to venue. I’ve had a few instances where the video player wasn’t working. (Of course, the fact that it took a tech pro a minute or two to diagnose the problem meant I still got the break I needed!) If you can, try to preview the technology of the room you’ll be presenting in to test. When it works, a video can provide the perfect two-minute, anti-anxiety break from the action.
Since that stressful moment in Mexico, I’ve given many presentations. My stage fright has largely disappeared from the many lectures and workshops alone. However, I still believe in the power of pause to engage the audience in an active learning experience. It is no coincidence that all of these ideas come from the literature on how to engage students in the classroom (which I discussed in an essay on the first five minutes of class and in a longer guide to “How to teach a good first day of class“). After all, the audience at a workshop or conference is there to learn from you, so you can use similar strategies in these presentations as you would in a classroom.
Not long ago, after a long break from public speaking due to health problems, I gave my first presentation to a large faculty audience. I was the keynote speaker and was assigned by other admins after a state-of-the-college speech and a series of updates. As my time approached, I looked around at the audience who had been passively absorbing information after information.
These people, I figured, don’t need another 45 minutes of uninterrupted lectures from me. You would like to have a moment to think about something interesting and talk about it with another teacher. After speaking for 10 minutes, I asked a discussion question and invited everyone to pair up. Not surprisingly, the energy level in the room skyrocketed.
Whatever strategy you use to calm your nerves before a high-stakes presentation, spend the final moments before picking up the mic to remind yourself: your audience wants to learn from you. But real learning requires active thinking on the part of the learner. So use those early moments of your conversation to get her thinking and take some pressure off you.