“Losing my train” in front of my idols: Contending with public speaking anxiety

Photo credit.

It’s common knowledge that no one attends the last session of an academic conference. So color me surprised when, as the very last speaker of the day, I stared back into 20 faces. 20! And not just any faces–sparkling visages of some of my organizational communication academic idols. No pressure.

By all accounts, my presentation about embodied research and focus group methodology went well. I attempted full disclosure about the “promises and pitfalls” of conducting research with recovering substance abusers (see here and here for more details on the project), especially the physical and emotional challenges.

Although I was a bit nervous (and I’m sure my beet-red chest/face showed it), I felt confident about my introduction and really started to get into a groove as I shared excerpts from my fieldnotes and the “back story” of being a research assistant on a large multi-agency grant. And then I described the outcome of focus groups as “You get in what you put out.”* Umm…

I recovered as the crowd collectively giggled.

I got my momentum back as I talked about planning groups and engaging with participants, and then as I showed photos of many of the clinics I visited. And then…. and then I “lost my train.” Of thought, that is. I completely lost my place in my notes about 16 minutes in. In fact, I flipped through my unstapled outline too fast and forgot an entire page! Ahhhhhhhhh!

After a moment of panic, I admitted losing track and made a joke about it being the end of the day. Somehow I magicked up an impromptu conclusion and received a pretty nice response.

So what to do about this public speaking anxiety? I can’t really help the turning red or the org comm superstars staring me in the face. But I could have PRACTICED more. As a former speech teacher, it is with chagrin that I admit only practicing it through one time. Ahem.

But do you know what really helped me? Not panicking. I know the audience wanted me to do well probably more than I did. So I took a moment, admitted I was stuck, gathered some thoughts and plowed through. More often than not, I find that the audience will understand and maybe even identify(?) with the nerves. It’s important not to freak out and, as I did when I was 8-years-old and forgot the words to the song I was singing at church, run off the stage in a fit of tears. (It’s poor form for academics, I think.)

That said, I will be practicing my butt off for my next speaking engagement** in May when there will likely be more than 20 people present. We’ll see!

xoxo,
shawna

*Apparently Karen Lee Ashcraft nominated me for “best quote” of the conference.
** Another academic conference, this one where I’ll be presenting a top paper. (Woo!)

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