Part 1: A toolkit of survival strategies for the introverted scientist at the podium

August 2018

by Hanna Ostapska, Graduate Student – Doctoral, McGill University

Did you know that one of the top fears in North America is public speaking despite the cultural norm of western society being that of encouraging extraversion? Following participation in presentation skills workshops, reading books and having conversations with junior and senior scientists, I have finally come to the realization that everyone, including charismatic speakers, experience presentation jitters right before having to speak in front of an audience.

In this blog of a multi-part series: A toolkit of survival strategies for the introverted scientist, I will share the tools that I have found in my investigation into how an introvert can enjoy owning the stage. I would like to stress that although my blog is aimed at the introverted audience, anyone can find these strategies useful as mentioned above even the extroverted population experiences stage fright.

Presenting in front of an audience

At a workshop, I was informed that actors who perform in front of a live audience for a living experience nervousness right before they get on stage despite an adequate amount of rehearsals and performing the same scene several times. I became more convinced that presentation nerves are common and normal rather than a defective emotion after hearing from several charismatic scientists that they too experience the jitters before presenting many of their talks. The source of these nerves was hypothesized by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, to originate from the time our ancestors lived in the savannah, where that environment meant we often had to flee our surroundings to avoid becoming a predator’s next meal.

Common advice given to the nervous presenter to overcome jitters includes imagining the audience nude. However, Susan Cain, the author of the New York Times best selling book: Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, has metaphorically argued that furless lions are equally dangerous as furry ones. This flight response is triggered by the reptilian part of our brain, the amygdala.

However, the mammalian part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, helps us to rationally assess the situation and realize that the audience regardless of size rather than being an aggregation of predators is instead composed of people who have come to listen to the talk. It is helpful to remind yourself that you as the presenter are on a mission to give something to each person in the audience to take away from your talk. The following strategies in this toolkit may also prove helpful.

  1. De-sensitize yourself by presenting at every opportunity you can find starting with manageable doses. Start practicing your talk with colleagues you feel comfortable with on an individual basis until you feel comfortable challenging yourself with a group of a few colleagues. Lab meetings are a good opportunity for a trial run with a larger group size before presenting at the podium of a seminar, regional meeting or conference.
  2. Prepare yourself by planning when to point to a specific element on the slide and while going over your talk, practice your body language.
  3. Self talk yourself into reminding yourself that you have already given well-received talks in the past. Studies show that self talking increases activity in the prefrontal cortex activity that is associated with a decrease in the activity of the amygdala.
  4. Learn a few breathing techniques to practice mindfulness and use the most effective one for you right before giving a talk.

 

I hope that I have managed to convince any introverts out there that introversion does not have to get in the way of being well received by an audience.


Hanna Ostapska is a 
PhD candidate mentored by Dr. Don Sheppard in the microbiology and immunology department at McGill University. Hanna has served as the communications officer on the 2018-2019 GlycoNet Trainee Association – Executive Committee.

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