Person paddling out on a surf board on calm water at sunset
Professional Development

Expecting the Anxiety

Last week, I was a guest speaker in a class, and it occurred to me that in my 25 years of teaching, I have instructed thousands of students. Although I occasionally get jitters when going into a classroom as a guest instructor, I know I can rely on years of experience to make a class visit as productive as possible. So, why do I feel so nervous when I am presenting to any other audience, and how can I better manage it?

I am not alone in feeling anxious; most people do not enjoy public speaking. As a way to improve, I look for opportunities to present to peers. I also dread them. Preparing to work with students is so much more predictable than trying to anticipate the interest of an audience of peers. This week, I find myself getting tied up over next week’s CETL presentation. Who is most likely to be in my audience? What do they hope to learn? Will I inspire or bore them? And, of course, how will I manage my fear that my presentation will fall flat?

I love the full-body chill of being in big waves off the Maine coast — in the summer, that is. My toes and legs get a little numb, but I am completely in the moment, floating on a body board or swimming through the waves. The energy and temperature of the water puts me a little on edge, but mostly, I focus on the breaking of the waves. Steadily, they roll in. Preparing for presentations to peers makes me think about the way those ocean waves are like my anxiety, rolling over me — bringing the power to lift me up or force me under.

My anxiety can give me the energy to fully engage with the audience.

Photo by Haotian Zheng

I tend to over-prepare for presentations, but that does not stop me from experiencing sleeplessness the night before or an unsettled stomach that morning. I learned that avoiding things that make me anxious only makes it harder to overcome it. Practice helps me get better. When I presented at CETL’s Faculty symposium in May (2023), I led a panel and created handout of resources for multimodal projects. Because it was the end of the term, I did a lot of the behind-the-scenes structuring so it was less work for my panelists. During the panel presentation, I could sit back and listen, attending only to keeping time to make sure everyone got to share. I knew the handout would provide the audience with tools to learn or explore, and my panelists’ experiences may encourage folks to experiment. So preparation helped me manage my anxiety on that day.

My greatest peer presentation challenge this year was when I was part of a panel at the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference. I was was invited to join people who are much more experienced researchers while it was my first time presenting my research. It was the first in-person conference I have ever attended without any colleagues from my university due to a last minute change, and I was traveling to South Carolina (also had never been to SC). Just getting from the airport to the campus was a challenge on day 1, but part of my strategy was to take it one small challenge at a time. Although I had a few interactions with the other panelists before the conference, it was mostly via email. We asynchronously contributed our own slides to the shared deck, and I did not see one of my co-presenters until just a few minutes before the panel. Maybe for others, these factors would create a little anxiety, but for me, I had to regularly talk myself through every minor bump. My anxiety was inconvenient but not incapacitating. So each day, I also factored in some down time to take a swim, walk around campus, or explore the area a little, knowing the exercise would help take the edge off. I bring a few books whenever I travel to make sure I have non-screen options to help me wind down before going to sleep.

I had the benefit (and drawback) of presenting on the final day of the conference. The benefit was that I had already submitted my slides (no more tinkering), so I could take in a lot of other panels before mine and think about my presentation. The drawback was that I had several days to think about what I could have done better or differently. Another chanllege is that on the final day of a multi-day conference, folks are either tired or gone. I knew I couldn’t control any of that, so I had to just focus on practicing my presentation. Each day until I gave it, I spoke the presentation out loud (timing myself to make sure I was keeping to my allotted 15 minutes). In the end, our panel was relatively well-attended for a final day, and we had a few online viewers. Some of the people whose sessions I had attended or just talked to since we were in the same hotel came to my panel, which was appreciated. Having a familiar face in the audience is another way of managing my anxiety, so I sometimes invite colleagues to attend. The added benefit is that it gives me someone to chat with to get some feedback after the presentation. People are generally kind with their feedback, so they are not likely to tear me down so much as make suggestions or observations.

In considering the variety of presentations I have given this year, I am improving, but I always know to expect that nervousness. Knowing it’s enough to make a few thoughtful adjustments, like floating over ocean waves instead of getting sucked under by them.

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