The Doctor's (not) in (yet): The introverted academic and how to survive public speaking


Quite recently I presented my research to interested people in our School. Which is not a biggie for my extroverted colleagues, but which is always giving me the creeps. Because I loathe the spotlight, being the center of attention, which is so far out of my comfort zone I can’t see it anymore…

However, giving presentations and talks is a common thing in academia, if you like it or not. It may be part of a particular course you take or you’re presenting within a scientific conference. Presenting in front of other people who also have no clue (your fellow students) may feel alright, yet a little nerve wrecking, but giving a talk in front of experts, who know when you’re talking nonsense? Probably the scariest thing you’ve ever done! At least this is how I felt prior to my first conference presentation in 2015, just a few couple of months after I submitted my Master thesis.

In general, conferences are not the introvert’s best friend. You have to network and socialise and you probably worry about your own performance, which may leave you quite exhausted. In fact, after my presentation, I felt so drained that I had to skip the following session to get myself some rest. It’s a very exciting experience, even a milestone, and it might be the case that you feel a bit overwhelmed. It’s totally fine to excuse yourself for a couple of hours if you feel you need a break.

But how did I survive the actual talk?

Well, the introvert’s secret is meticulous preparation! I’ve been starting to build my presentation more than 8 weeks prior to the conference, practicing my 15 minutes regularly to feel comfortable with my speech, which at the same time ensured I’m not looking at my slides all the time. It also helps to remind yourself that you’re the expert. That even though you present in front of reputable academics, no one knows the topic better than you (sometimes not even your supervisors ;)). That people attend your talk because they are genuinely interested in what you have to say. And not to bash you or your topic (however, there are conferences where this has been witnessed, but in tourism research most people are really nice and supportive).

Another key to a successful presentation is your relationship to your topic. I’m far from being an excellent public speaker but I’ve always done a decent job – given that I felt comfortable with the topic. In High School I often used short presentations to improve my oral grades (class participation is also not the introvert’s friend, especially when you’re always talked over by people who love to hear the tune of their own voice. We all know who they are…) which have been, less surprising, about the marine environment. How you feel about your topic determines the overall success of your speech! So although being outside of your comfort zone, you need to try to get at least one foot back in…It always helps to take yourself not too serious. My signature move within a public speech is a comic placed on my final slide. In general, although we talk about research it doesn’t mean it has to be 100% serious all the time. Remember that the audience should be educated but also a bit entertained to keep its attention! I think most of us have been bored to death at some stage because the presentation has been dry and monotonous. Don’t be that presenter!

It is good to be nervous because it keeps you awake and alert. Embrace it and don’t fight it! Even experienced academics feel a little nervous when they have to give a speech, simply because it is human nature.

Let me quote Jerry Seinfeld here:

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Remind yourself that 99% of your audience is glad they’re not standing in your exact same spot…And at most conferences you won’t speak for longer than 15 minutes. Seminars or lectures are longer though. The last seminar was scheduled for 40 minutes which has been a bit challenging but it’s not impossible.

As always, practice makes perfect. Even if you’re terrified, take as many opportunities you can get to talk in front of other people as you will feel more comfortable with every experience you make. Expose yourself! Many universities offer informal functions (such as Postgraduate Week at Auckland University of Technology) where you can introduce[nbsp] your research to others.

My next presentation will be in front of the doctoral board members of our Faculty to confirm my candidature. Is this scary? Hell yeah! But will I survive? Probably.

Why? I’m the expert.