One of my greatest fears since embarking on my PhD journey has been to give a public speech. I’m not sure why giving a public speech has become a nightmare for me. I consider myself a very social person, not shy, nor introverted in the slightest. However, I have come to realise that the main underlying issue lies in my perfectionism. As a perfectionist, I don’t aim to give an acceptable presentation, I want it to be flawless. I fixate on the many weaknesses I believe I possess to the point that each becomes an obstacle in and of itself, preventing me from achieving any goal I have in mind.
Confronting the Fear
Two months ago, at the PGR English Symposium, I was forced to face my fear of public speaking head on. But because I aimed for a perfect presentation, I felt the need to excel in body language, eye contact, and professionalism, all while keeping a flawless tone. What made this even more challenging was the fact that English is not my first language, and I would be presenting in front of an audience that includes native English speakers. This meant that any mistake I made would be particularly embarrassing to me, especially in front of my supervisors, colleagues, and other staff members at the school.
The “what ifs” started to consume me. What if I didn’t understand a certain question during the Q&A session? What if I didn’t know the answer or gave the wrong one? These thoughts only intensified my stress and added to the pressure day in and day out. However, I realised that focusing solely on the problem and blaming myself wasn’t productive. Instead, I sought a gradual solution and decided to be patient with myself.
Seeking Solutions: Building Confidence
Firstly, I acknowledged the issue and shared it with my supervisors. Opening up to them helped alleviate some of the burden I was carrying.
Secondly, I decided to enrol in a presentation skills course. Interestingly, the instructor, who was already familiar with me, expressed surprise and commented, “I have noticed that the dedicated students are always striving to improve, whereas those who appear indifferent often possess (incorrectly) inflated self-confidence”. This statement offered me a fresh perspective and a renewed outlook on the matter.
Next, I approached the Academic Skills providers and asked for opportunities to present in front of them. This proved to be immensely beneficial as it equipped me with techniques to alleviate stress and deliver a polished presentation. Additionally, I became acquainted with the various university services available for enhancing student skills across different aspects of research, extending beyond just speaking abilities.
I then practiced my presentation in front of my colleagues, considering the duration of the presentation as well as the clarity of the PowerPoint slides. I requested their valuable feedback, knowing that their expertise as native speakers would provide insightful perspectives, especially regarding the language use. I received very positive and encouraging feedback, which significantly bolstered my confidence.
Embracing Imperfection: A Journey of Growth and Learning
Most importantly, I made a conscious effort to believe in myself and let go of the idea of perfectionism. I reminded myself that I was the most knowledgeable person about my topic and that small mistakes, such as forgetting, mispronouncing, or misunderstanding something, were not as significant as I made them out to be. In fact, people probably wouldn’t even notice these errors, which I had blown out of proportion in my mind.
By following these steps, I convinced myself to simply enjoy the day and allow myself to make mistakes. I must confess that I experienced some anxiety prior to commencing my talk. However, once I began, I found myself deeply engaged with the subject matter. Overall, it turned out to be a distinctive and delightful experience, free from the immense fear I had anticipated. The audience comprehended my presentation, actively interacted with it, and provided valuable and encouraging feedback.
As for the questions I couldn’t answer? I regarded them as opportunities for future exploration.
For those who share my perfectionist mindset, remember, we cannot change external circumstances, but we certainly have the power to change our thoughts about them. It’s not worth compromising your mental health for the sake of a short presentation. Your well-being should always come first!