Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dealing with public speaking jitters

I wrote this entry less than an hour before going into a conference to moderate a plenary session. The conference, the third annual “ICTs for civil society” is hosted by the South African NGO Network (Sangonet) and I must say I am so nervous it’s not funny.

I’m familiar with the agenda and the work the organisations in the panel are doing. The subject also happens to touch on one of my professional subject areas, so in principle I should be fine.

I am also well-prepared and have a draft of initial questions to ask, and some secondary questions if we have time. Still, I have bad visions of being tongue-tied in front of the delegates, or worse yet, my mind going completely blank.

So I decided to write this post, and in the process learnt the following when facing a nerve-wrecking situation:

1) Do something that you are familiar with, and competent at, in the lead up to the moment. It will keep your mind occupied and allow you to do something useful. No need to pace and imagine all sorts of horrible scenarios taking place.

2) Accept what will be. There is still the possibility that my notes will fall on the floor, completely disrupting my rhythm. That’s fine. I will calmly pick them up, put them on the table and carry on. I also have enough knowledge of the subject matter to keep the conversation going if I can find my place on the notes.

3) I also plan to focus on the task at hand during the proceedings and engage the audience. I’ve learnt over the years that the audience will forgive you if you draw them into the process and chat to them, rather than delivering a stilted presentation.

4) The nerves fade – if you are lucky, the nerves will fade once you’re into the presentation/speech. If not, take a moment when the tension gets too high to sip water, release some breath.

I’ve heard if you imagine the audience is naked, it will help calm your nerves. I'm not sure how that works though. I tend to imagine that I’m chatting to a couple of people on the front row, and they’re friends of mine who asked for my input. It calms my nerves when I imagine a friendly audience.

Update: The panel discussion went well. I should have made room for more audience participation, and there were one or two instances where I wished the debate could be more heated, but beyond that, it was fine.

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