Conference Presentations, Part II: Combating Anxiety

Much like Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, many of us are terrified of public speaking.


Giant hat and microphone combo FTW. Source:

Unfortunately, saying words in front of other humans remains an important part of academic life, especially at venues like conferences. In a continuation of my series on giving presentations, I want to share some tips and tricks I recently learned from Theatre and Speech Communication professor Julie Kiernan on dealing with public speaking anxiety.

According to Professor Kiernan, having a little bit of nerves is actually a good thing, since it can help you stay present in the moment and shows that you care. It’s when our nerves get out of control that they can seriously interfere with our ability to do well on a presentation. Managing anxiety means staying calm in our bodies and our minds. Here are some of Professor Kiernan’s tips for keeping anxiety from turning into panic:

  • Practice controlled breathing. There are many different exercises for controlling your breath. One that we practiced during the workshop I attended was to breathe in (through your nose) for a count of x (x being whatever is most comfortable for you at that moment), hold your breath for a count of x, and exhale (through your mouth) for a count of 2x.
  • Meditate. Focus on your breath and keep your eyes soft, not looking at anything in particular. Allow any thoughts to come to your mind, acknowledge them for what they are, and then let them go.
  • Exercise. Getting a work out in before giving a presentation can help you feel more present and comfortable in your body during your talk and give you endorphines that will help you feel more confident. But make sure to work out several hours before your presentation (and shower, obviously) — you don’t want this strategy to backfire by showing up winded or tired.
  • Do isometrics. Feeling tense? Try isometrics, or isolating certain muscles, tightening them, and then relaxing them. Not only will you let go of some tension, you’ll also increase blood flow. You can do this sitting in the audience with your hands, feet, legs, etc., or go to the restroom and scrunch up and de-scrunch your face.
  • Practice a power pose for 2 minutes. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s research has shown that holding a power pose (try the Wonder Woman) for just 2 minutes can change your body’s hormones, decreasing levels of cortisol, linked to stress, and increasing levels of testosterone, linked to confidence.

The Wonder Woman pose. Source:

  • Visualize success. Before the big day, take a few minutes to visualize everything going exactly as you would hope, from the moment you wake up through the end of the night. Athletes commonly practice visualization; it’s a way of training your mind to expect success.
  • Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice. Being prepared is probably one of the best things you could do to diminish day-of stress. Practice your talk AT LEAST 5 times. You could even record yourself or ask a friend or family member to listen and give you feedback.
  • Think of realistic solutions to your fears. In another exercise from the workshop, Prof. Kiernan asked us to write out a two column list. On the left hand side, list out some of your fears about giving your talk. Then on the right hand side, generate a realistic response to each fear. For instance, if you’re afraid your hands will shake, your solution might be to put them in your pockets or steady them on the podium.
  • Take a walk. If you arrive early enough at the venue of your talk, go for a little stroll to work out some nervous energy, outside if possible.
  • Wear lavender. Lavender is known for its calming effects. Try applying a little lavender oil to your temples or wrists for long-lasting stress relief.

It’s time to hear from you. What strategies do you use to combat presentation anxiety? Tell me in the comments!



2 thoughts on “Conference Presentations, Part II: Combating Anxiety

  1. I am a BIG fan of the power pose. I did this before my first conference talk, and it helped me feel more confident when I was presenting. I, however, cannot do counting my breath. To count holding my breath in actually gives me more anxiety (it’s weird how different anxiety can play out for people!).

    For me, I tend to get really winded when I get anxious, so although I’m sure a walk would be better for me, I don’t think (for me) its the best option to help my anxiety.

    I also suggest having water with you while you are sitting and waiting to present (and maybe while you present). I can definitely get anxious vocal fry, so I sip water regularly before I talk (I don’t drink a lot or I will need to run to the lady’s, which is obviously not an option while presenting).

    The best way to help with anxiety: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. It makes me feel slightly more confident when I can reassure myself that I have practiced a ton and I know what I’m doing.

    Thanks, Megan!


  2. Pingback: Conference Presentations Part IV: Top 10 Most Randomly Useful Tips You Never Knew You Needed | Breaking Grad (School)

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