Public speaking. If these two words evoke a frightened sigh or a sudden desire to slowly vanish without anyone noticing, welcome to my erstwhile world. While I was always supremely confident in informal conversations with my peers, I stammered, stuttered, or just stayed quiet through most of the formal scenarios in high school. In 9th grade I was asked to read the poem ‘Macavity, the mystery cat’ by T.S.Eliot in our English class. The book was right in front of me and I did not even have to stand. And yet, as the teacher called out my name, I froze, and my heartbeat shot up. The pounding didn’t stop till well after I had finished. I didn’t actually do a bad job, but that did not prevent the onset of these symptoms again when I was offered the prospect of reading out aloud in class.
In 11th grade, I was determined to tackle this problem—I was well versed in the English language and was reasonably articulate, yet why did speaking in front of others terrify me? I joined leadership training classes. The class itself used to be almost empty, and all that was required was to speak on a random topic. The setting suited me perfectly—few people meant fewer witnesses to my shortcomings and the lazy pace helped me ramp up my confidence in tiny notches. However, a class strength of 5 meant that many-a-times, I was speaking to an almost empty class and after some initial flustering, I soon got habituated without a huge deal of improvement.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
College life was low-key in terms of extra-curricular involvement. My pattern of debating and discussing with friends, while staying quiet in class continued. While two of my friends went on to participate in debating competitions, I could never muster up the courage. The next time when I had to talk in a formal setting was when I had to present my Masters’ thesis. My friends at university came from varied backgrounds, and some, unlike me, had to suffer the combined bout of stage fright and inexperienced meandering through the English language. Seeing my friends struggle and yet try their best to overcome their drawbacks did embolden me—we were all tensed and filled with dread, but in all fairness, their struggle was harder. My main armor in such a situation was to practice till I had the entire flow clear in my head. I would write down most parts of the talk, a practice I continue till this day, though I have become increasingly flippant about it. I think I practiced my talk at least twenty times before the final day, which helped me to deliver a decent lecture despite initial shakiness.
“I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.“- Mark Twain
Joining the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) opened up a Pandora’s Box of opportunities for public speaking. We had regular ‘journal clubs’ which meant presenting a scientific paper in front of the department every few weeks. Adopting the adage of ‘practice makes perfect’ I made full use of my journal club slots. My presentations got better and the fright went down quite a few notches. As with many other irrational fears, the pounding heart, clammy palms, and the extreme anxiety have not really gone away. They appear at the beginning of every talk and yet with experience, I am able to manage them well—and are usually not detected by the audience. The pretense of confidence has been an old friend and as time passes, conviction continues to replace it.
One major turning point in this trajectory was joining the students’ council at IISc. I had been volunteering for quite some time, and soon got an opportunity to introduce the committee I worked for in the main auditorium during a freshers’ orientation program. It was a 3 minute talk and I was only co-speaking, but my stage fear came back in full force. I had never spoken in such a big hall before and lost quite a bit of sleep over that 3-minute introduction. I remember continually practicing the talk while pacing up and down in the restroom on the program day. All the frenzied preparation paid off and the actual staged introduction (which was probably the 101st time I was vocalizing it) went off without a glitch. Since then I have given a lot of such 3-minute introductions, votes of thanks, and opening sentences for students’ council programmes during my tenure. I managed to be a (hopefully!) not-so-unsuccessful teaching assistant for the neuroscience module of the newly initiated undergraduate program at IISc. Much experience has been gathered, and the potency of stage fright seems less. While flamboyant, impromptu anchoring for shows or programs seems very unlikely, gearing up for a well-practiced academic talk does not seem as terror-inducing as before. In all this rigmarole, I would always remember the surreal jubilance I felt after giving that first 3-minute introduction—it was such a small thing in the light of so many significant milestones people cross, and yet, I knew, it was a very important personal landmark for me. I was the same girl who once trembled reading a poem out aloud, and had never imagined that I could actually talk to a big audience, and I had just done that. I remember that feeling afresh and it is one of those things that occupies my life’s memory box.
“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” –Dale Carnegie
Public speaking is something integral to a scientist’s life, whether it is taking classes or giving talks at a conference. Not all scientists make brilliant speakers, and while that requires a different kind of effort, this piece is for all those out there who are struggling with a fear of public speaking. I believe what helped me was starting out in small groups, instead of accelerating into a high-pressure arena. If one looks around, one would see many with the same predicament, so do not give up! Practice groups also work wonders, however, if that is not possible, just practice aloud and do fair assessments. Take pride in the smallest of successes and egg yourself on! If I could reach a level of ease starting from the nadir, so can anyone else! You are your best cheerleader and if you stumble, inject some comfort and much-needed enthusiasm and get ready for the next round. The tougher the journey, the greater is joy of crossing the hurdle. There is no end to learning, there is no final destination, but only traversing from one elevating goal to the next, culminating in one remarkable path.
“A book may give you excellent suggestions on how best to conduct yourself in the water, but sooner or later you must get wet, perhaps even strangle and be “half scared to death.” There are a great many “wet less” bathing suits worn at the seashore, but no one ever learns to swim in them. To plunge is the only way.” — Dale Carnegie
About the author : Debaleena is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. She loves writing and has recently forayed into the domain of science writing.
Illustration : Ipsa
Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing.
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