Problems with giving talks

  • #1
Gold Member

I consider myself an extroverted person. I am comfortable interacting with large groups of people. As a teaching assistant, I am comfortable in front of a class. Recently though, I have developed a strong sense of panic before giving talks. Today I was slated to give a talk in front of a rather large group (~40) of fellow grad students. I know most of them and I would feel fine talking to any of them. The talk was on part of my research and it was well practiced. The material is very familiar to me. I was calm and collected walking to the talk, but as I stood in front of the room waiting for the talk to begin I began to feel nervous. I suffer from bouts of anxiety; nervousness is not foreign to me. I have seen a doctor about panic attacks, as I suffer from them on occasion. Sure enough, as I stood in front of the seminar room, my hands began shaking, I couldn't breath, my heart was pounding, and worst of all I couldn't talk. I had to leave the room, to the astonishment of the audience and to my utter shame. I talked to the organizer afterward to apologize and he seemed rather understanding (more understanding than I may have been in his stead). This was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.

This is the first time this has ever happened (more than just preliminary nervousness) and I have given many talks before, most of them much more important than the one today. I am supposed to be giving a talk this year at the APS March Meeting in Denver. A similar occurrence there would be devastating and could have long term detrimental impact on my career as an academic. I am not seeking medical or psychological advice; I plan on talking to professionals about this. I am simply interested to hear others folk's experiences on this issue. Have you given talks before and broken down? Have you had troubles with anxiety before giving a talk? How have you coped if you have experienced this?


Answers and Replies

  • #2
I can't give much advice, except to say that I often feel nervous before a talk but as soon as I get up there and get past the first slide, I usually feel quite comfortable.

I think part of the trick is to prepare as much as you can, and when the time comes just think about whatever else you can. Once you get up there and start going, your attention will be so focused that you'll forget everything else.
  • #3
Science Advisor
Have you had troubles with anxiety before giving a talk?
I used to have trouble in my youth, mainly because back then I cared too much about what the other "superior" people in the audience thought of me. It became less severe over time as I grew in confidence of my subject.

How have you coped if you have experienced this?
1 shot of alcohol was enough to calm my nerves (though this only works if you understand the subject well enough to deal with curly questions easily).

I suffer from bouts of anxiety; nervousness is not foreign to me. I have seen a doctor about panic attacks, as I suffer from them on occasion. Sure enough, as I stood in front of the seminar room, my hands began shaking, I couldn't breath, my heart was pounding, and worst of all I couldn't talk.
OK, that's classic anxiety/panic. In the short term, you can get symptom relief by the "Advanced Inhale-Hold-Exhale Deep Breathing" technique described on this webpage:

It can be hard to perform this exercise when you're already in the grip of an anxiety attack, so try practising it sooner when you're reasonably calm, so that you get the hang of it. It can take 15-20 mins the first few times you try it, but after you become familiar with it, and start doing it as soon as you feel the first hints of rapid/shallow breathing, it will have a calming effect faster.

So also do the exercise before you actually have to stand up and talk.

As background, it's useful to understand how mental states can turn into actual physical problems via the release of adrelanin and cortisol. The advanced deep beathing technique gets things back into balance, but you must persevere with it.

Also have a read of this:

Wikipedia said:
According to Ghafoor, 90% of individuals suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder also struggle with at least one additional mental health issue. Of these individuals, up to 50% may have experienced a serious episode of depression by age 18.
You said you'd "seen a doctor about panic attacks". Do you mean a GP? Have you also seen a psychologist, e.g., someone who practices cognitive behavioural therapy? If not, then my advice is to do so as soon as reasonable practical. The anxiety attacks are coming from deeper thoughts and beliefs that you're probably not properly aware of. The therapist can help with that, and hopefully nip any other latent mental issues before they become severe.

[Edit:] in conjunction with the breathing exercise, try learning the Jacobson progressive muscle relaxation technique, described here:
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  • #4
Science Advisor
Gold Member
If possible you must not give in to your panic attack - that can make them get progressively worse. But if you resist, each time it becomes easier to resist.

If you cannot resist then you need to see a mental health expert; there are many behavioral techniques which can be used.

During an MRI a few years ago I had a "claustrophobic" panic attack - and pressed the panic button. After that I kept getting claustrophobic panic attacks at lectures (too many people sitting near me), elevators, etc. The more I gave in, the worse they became. Once I realized this I began to resist with a brief mental kick in the rear end ... and they became less severe, and eventually disappeared.

The human mind can work weird feedback loops. I managed to break the loop. It took about a year.
  • #5
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
At my work, we have lots of tours coming through and we have to give "dog and pony" shows for them. They were never a problem for me, until...whew, the big one.

This particular group was no different than any other. But a few moments into the talk, I just...well you know what happened to you? It happened to me. My voice broke, my whole body was shaking, I was sweating. I felt like a freak. And for some reason I could not take my eyes off of this one guy in the group - oh I must have made him feel so, so uncomfortable. And whatever I said, it was incomprehensible.

No one would look me in the eyes for a while afterwards. It was completely humiliating.

But my boss was understanding. He let me keep doing tours. And every time a tour came through after that, I would get nervous, which never happened before. I was never as smooth after that, but I never had a big incident again.

Two years later, that same group was coming through - the same group that gave me the big freak out! I was so afraid! I was sure I would bomb even worse than before.

The big moment came...and I was unbelievably cool, calm, and lucid. Even funny. I couldn't believe it. Afterwards, even the President of the company congratulated me.

What happened was, moments before the talk I just said to myself, How can it get worse than last time? Well sure I could vomit or pee myself. Maybe even both! OK, c'est la vie.

Once I came to that, "OK, c'est la vie" moment, I was (almost) calm.

Not sure how this can help you, ZF. But I sure do know what you're going through.
  • #6
Claude Bile
Science Advisor
Just speculating here, but maybe the fact that you were talking to your peers might have been a factor? Whereas with strangers there is an element of disassociation there than can be protective. I know I'm usually a bit more nervous when I know my boss is in the audience....

I found the key to handling pre-talk anxiety is the same as dipole's; to practice..practice..practice to the point where you can present it on autopilot (and to structure slides to facilitate this). That way if you "freeze" you can quickly find your feet again.

My advice would be - don't frame the significance of your upcoming talk as being make-or-break, one slip from disaster type deal. It probably isn't. Even if you freeze - most people are smart and sympathetic enough to understand that there are probably factors outside your control, and won't use it to question your scientific pedigree.

If the worst does come to pass, just take a deep breath, excuse yourself and cite the fact you aren't feeling well. Invite people who are interested to discuss your work at a later time. Session chairs are usually more than accommodating in this respect.

  • #7
Have you had troubles with anxiety before giving a talk?

Yes, virtually every time I have ever given a talk (maybe 10 or so).

How have you coped if you have experienced this?

Muscle-through it because I realize it's a battle-field out there, Darwinian, survival of the fittest and they want you to fail so they can take your dibs and so I won't make it easy for them because I want to be a survivor, maybe not the best one, but good enough to make it to tomorrow. And so I ask, are you? If so then get out there and fight like hell!
  • #8
Gold Member
It became less severe over time as I grew in confidence of my subject.

This is what changed me. If you are confident that you know what you're presenting, that it is correct, and that you can answer most questions about it you won't be nervous at all. If you feel like you're the one who is teaching a group of people a topic, and they know nothing about it, you'll feel even better.

This changes with time in graduate school as you go from thinking that : the entire audience already knows what you're presenting, probably has 10+ papers specifically on the subject, and understand it better than you ever will, to realizing that most of them have no clue, are impressed by ANY conviction or enthusiasm you show (+30 points if you speak loudly and clearly), and are barely following the talk anyway as they're busy on their laptops writing their own presentation for after the coffee break...
  • #9
Try explaining what you are going to talk about to someone else beforehand. And try be a little spontaneous, I only practice the outline of what I'm going to say. I make up a lot as I go along, and it helps to dehumanize them in your head.