Riding the Tiger: My Journey Public Speaking with Anxiety

Many of the people who have emailed me over the past month in the wake of my panic attack on ABC News Breakfast have assumed that I have trouble with public speaking in general. To a degree this is true, however over the years I have become reasonably accomplished at making presentations to groups of people in various different contexts, from university lectures to presentations to community groups and workshops with high school students. All public speaking contexts generate an anxiety reaction in me that makes me feel like I am riding a tiger as I speak, I find some more comfortable than others. That relative comfort with some public speaking contexts is also a product of practice and experience. As you will read below, that comfort was hard-won.

In my radio interview with Jon Faine on 774 ABC Melbourne last month, Jon posed and excellent question, asking how I could eloquently talk about my TV experience with him live on radio yet freeze up on television. What Jon couldn’t see as he was speaking to me on the phone was my incessant fidgeting as I channeled my nervous energy into body movement. On the ABC News Breakfast set I was stuck behind a desk and could not move. With nowhere to go, all my nervous energy kept accumulating and eventually contributed to “the freeze” when the cameras focused on me.

During radio interviews I also usually have a page of dot-point notes to use as a prompt in case of a mental blank, an aid which I did not have on the ABC News Breakfast set. I also have extensive experience doing radio interviews by phone and have improved my skills in this medium dramatically since my first radio interview in 2010 through practice and training. Through trial and error, I have developed a set of coping strategies that help me to push through my anxiety when speaking on radio.

“Public speaking” is an umbrella term that covers a range of different contexts in which we speak to groups of people, from chatting over coffee with a group of friends to delivering a speech to thousands of people, ranging in style from monologue to conversation to meetings. Jon Faine’s perceptive question highlights how different public speaking situations hold different anxiety triggers for people. Similarly, individuals will develop different coping strategies for different public speaking contexts. Rarely does anyone struggle with every colour on the public speaking rainbow. The coping strategies I have developed seem to work for me but are not necessarily generalisable for other people suffering anxiety. Hopefully there is enough in my experiences that people can relate to that will help them reflect on their own public speaking anxieties.

Ben Habib speaking with RMIT Master of Landscape students.

Ben speaking with RMIT Master of Landscape students, 2015.  This room felt like the holo-deck on the Starship Enterprise.

Snippets from My Public Speaking Journey

As an academic, I work in a profession where I have to talk in front of people all the time. As an anxiety sufferer it has been a hard road coming to grips with this aspect of my job. The anxiety symptoms I described in What it feels like to ‘freeze’ on national television were, and remain, a regular accompaniment to my public speaking engagements. Many academics have contacted me recently sharing similar anxiety experiences in their own careers, which has inspired me to share some of the more memorable moments from my rollercoaster public speaking journey.

My first presentation as a PhD student was a departmental seminar at Flinders University, where academic staff and fellow postgraduate students would offer constructive critique on the content of speakers’ presentations. There is something uniquely terrifying about offering up your work for critical feedback, especially as a newly-minted PhD student. Even today when I receive reviewer feedback for my academic journal article submissions I have a quick peak at the comments and then put away the reviews for a few days. This gives me space to let my emotional reaction to the feedback subside before I come back to the feedback with more objective eyes.

As an introvert personality I tend to feel more comfortable sitting back and observing in public situations. I like to take time formulating a response to questions in my head before sharing it aloud in a group, which makes speaking off-the-cuff more difficult. The social armour I have developed over the years is fortified with quick humour. There are moments when I am genuinely funny, but hiding behind humour as a social coping strategy can lead me into superficial conversations and stupid comments that often don’t do justice to my depth of thought. The immediacy of getting up in front of groups to talk about detailed intellectual topics requires stripping off that armour, which as many of you know can be a scary thing to do.

The first lecture I ever gave was a presentation on environmental security for the first-year introduction international relations subject at Flinders. After about ten minutes my mouth and throat were as parched as desert and I started coughing profusely. Fortunately a fellow postgrad buddy was in the crowd and saved the day with a bottle of water from the vending machine outside. Prior to this the longest presentation I had given was 15 minutes at a couple of conferences; a one hour lecture was a big step up. In my second lecture two days later, the projector screen wouldn’t activate and I had to paint a verbal picture of my visually spectacular PowerPoint slideshow, full of maps and diagrams…my first lesson in dealing with technology failure as a public speaker.

Speaking of conferences, I coughed up my first conference presentation at the 2007 HERDSA Conference at the Adelaide Hilton. My panel was the first of the morning and having not been to a conference before I had no idea how these events worked. I was the first speaker on the panel. After I concluded my presentation I packed up my notes and left the room to bewildered looks from the audience, not realising that panel presentations usually conclude with a Q&A session. After the usual anxious build up, I was just happy to get out of the room.

At another conference the following year in Melbourne I had the dreaded but common experience of inadvertently preparing a forty minute presentation for a fifteen minute presentation slot. At the ten minute mark I began to realise that I had way too much material to cover. My body started to heat up and my brow began to bead with sweat. When the panel chair signaled “two minutes remaining” I started to get the mental blanks and lose my place in my notes. Discomfort intensified as I started getting even more anxious about how anxious I was feeling.   And then it was finished. I got a couple of good questions in the Q&A session which I answered without much trouble, and then my fellow panelists and I walked down to Lonsdale Street for a souvlaki. I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day: (1) be mindful of timing prepared notes for presentations, and (2) it didn’t matter that my presentation was scratchy because academic conferences are not all that important in the great scheme of things. As uncomfortable as the moment was, life moved on pretty quickly.

Me with fellow panelists at the 'Australia's Strategic Futures Conference' in Adelaide, 2009. I was sick with the flu that day, which oddly made me less self-conscious about making a mistake.

Me with fellow panelists at the ‘Australia’s Strategic Futures Conference’ in Adelaide, 2009. I was sick with the flu that day, which oddly made me less self-conscious about making a mistake.

I confess to being quite intimidated when I first started my lecturing position at La Trobe University. Stepping into my first department meeting with academic luminaries such as Robert Manne, Judith Brett, Dennis Altman and Joe Camilleri was a daunting experience. Although I tried not to, I couldn’t help comparing my nervous public speaking persona with the eloquent and confident lecture styles of my more senior colleagues. One of my strategies for navigating my feeling of inadequacy as a presenter was to prepare the aforementioned visually spectacular PowerPoint slideshows to accompany my spoken monologue. I attempted to augment what I perceived to be my awkward presentation style with images that provided descriptive visual examples and useful metaphors to the concepts I was trying to communicate verbally, minus the slabs of writing on slides that make audiences fall asleep. Now that I have become more accomplished as a presenter, the combination of my pictorial slides and spoken messaging have become a potent combination. A picture really does tell a thousand words.

The moments I have shared above, while uncomfortable, were also the clumsy mistakes of a rookie. As my confidence as a speaker has grown in the times since I have had many wonderful public speaking experiences and have come to realise the importance of celebrating these wins. Some highlights stand out among the many fantastic speaking engagements I have participated in…

  • Talking about modern Chinese history with a group of three boys taking VCE History at Tallangatta High School.
  • Discussing permaculture with staff members of Seoul Green Trust in Seoul, South Korea.
  • Delivering a public presentation on carbon pricing to a sceptical audience at a community forum at Ettamogah.
  • And of course my many visits to the Albury-Wodonga and Nillumbik U3A groups.
Me speaking at the ENV1CSS Plennary Lecture at LTU Albury-Wodonga, 2012

Me speaking at the ENV1CSS Plennary Lecture at LTU Albury-Wodonga, 2012. I was roped into doing this presentation with only a few hours notice after the original speaker pulled out.

Talking to varying audiences in this way has made me a better communicator because I have needed to develop diverse presentation strategies for reaching different people. Doing this kind of work has also allowed me to meet all kinds of amazing and interesting people who I otherwise might not get to interact with on campus. Yes, it is absolutely nerve-wracking to walk into a room full of strangers and put on a good show, but being the speaker does come with a ready-made conversation starter with audience members afterward, which is a lifesaver for someone like me who is rubbish with small-talk.

Coping Strategies: How I Ride the Public Speaking Tiger

My skills as a public speaker have improved through repetition. Each year I deliver over sixty lectures to undergraduate and postgraduate students, along with numerous presentations to professional and community organisations, media interviews, and podcasts. Each presentation is a learning experience that contributes to improving the presentations that come after it. Keeping a diary with brief notes about what works and what doesn’t in different public speaking contexts has been useful making strategic improvements to my public speaking style.

I have discovered that audiences will forgive almost any presentation flaw if the presenter has something of substance to say. The audience wants the speaker to succeed because this validates their choice to come and watch. Conversely, there are some people with the gift-of-the-gab who talk at length with great eloquence without actually saying anything at all. I have become more comfortable being the sometimes clumsy orator with something important to say. Coming to terms with the fact that people might be genuinely interested in what I have to say has been a long-standing emotional battle. Body language tells notwithstanding, the audience cannot hear what is going on inside your head and are more interested in taking away something of value from a presentation, regardless of the presentation technique.

Detailed preparation for a presentation is crucially important for someone like me who rides the avalanche of getting anxious about being anxious. I always have prompts of some form or another, whether that is the headings of slides in my PowerPoint slideshows for presentations that I have done many times before, or detailed written notes for material that I am speaking about for the first time. I always used to marvel at the capacity of my senior colleagues to engage in stirring oratory seemingly off-the cuff. It eventually occurred to me that they can do this because they have been practicing this art for decades and that I may eventually be able to do the same thing when I am in my sixties. Rather than (negatively) compare my presenting style to theirs, I came to appreciate that it doesn’t matter whether you work from notes or not, so long as you give your audience something of value.

For the more important presentations I will rehearse beforehand to get comfortable with my delivery, refine the structure of the presentation and polish up my notes. Where possible, I check out the venue beforehand to get comfortable with the space. Before each semester at LTU I check out every room I lecture and tutor in to make sure I am prepared for any unique characteristics of each teaching space. I also ensure I have a back-up plan should the technology fail, such as storing slideshow files on USB and online in DropBox, just in case either storage medium doesn’t work. Thorough preparation helps to ease my anxiety about being unprepared as I walk into the room to speak.

Developing a presenting style that fit my personality and emotional needs was key in getting comfortable with public speaking. As I mentioned above, I tend to exorcise my nervous energy while speaking in public through kinetic movement. Anyone who has seen me speak in public will notice that I tend to walk around, rock back and forth and accentuate my hand gestures and body language while speaking. It took me a while to get comfortable doing this, as my initial anxiety reaction is usually to withdraw inward and stay rooted to the spot. Once I got into the habit of moving while speaking I have found it much easier to avoid mental blanks and move through those awkward moments.

I have also come to value some downtime in the aftermath of my speaking engagements. The extreme adrenaline surge I get from speaking in front of people usually subsides about half an hour after the conclusion of my engagement. The resulting energy crash leaves me needing some space to ride the comedown and recharge. Having a quiet coffee after my lectures at LTU has become an important concluding ritual that helps me recuperate from the emotional drain that public speaking takes on me.

Conclusion

To this day I still get extremely nervous before every public speaking engagement that I undertake. That anxiety is never going to go away and I will always be riding that tiger. However, I have learned to manage my anxiety about public speaking with experience and channel my nervous energy in a constructive way. From time to time I encounter new public speaking environments that I am not so prepared for—like my interview on ABC News Breakfast—which tip me over the anxiety precipice and into panic mode. In these cases I try to get back on the horse and try again, having learned from the previous experience, or walk away from that particular public speaking environment with the understanding that that context is too laden with anxiety triggers and too stressful to make it worth my while. Learning to be OK with either of those choices is a challenge in itself. I have chosen to get back on the horse when it comes to speaking to live audiences. By contrast, I have made the choice not to do any more television interviews, understanding that the TV medium is too intense to cope with in relation to my anxiety.

I would like to dedicate this posting to all the wonderful people who have emailed me over the past weeks to share your gut-wrenching experiences with public speaking. I felt right there with each of you and I thank you deeply for your courage and trust in sharing those experiences. It is my hope that sharing my public speaking journey will help others to feel better about those excruciating moments.

Whatever you are feeling inside, know that the audience is with you!

…unless you are a politician.

Ben interviewed on 'The World' on ABC 24, 2013.

Ben interviewed on ‘The World’ on ABC 24, 2013.

See Also…

Talking about it…

Ben Habib – “What if feels like to ‘freeze’ on national television.” 10 February 2016.

Interview with Jon Faine.” Mornings with John Faine. 774 ABC Radio Melbourne. 11 February 2016.

Anatomy of a Meltdown.” The Project. Ten Network Television. 12 February 2016.

Ben Habib – “Jam Session: Understanding my anxiety through basketball.” 22 February 2016.

Ben Habib – “Kick-Drum Therapy: Hard Music as My Anxiety Medicine.”

Get help…

This first step is the hardest psychological barrier to overcome, but it will be the most beneficial. To start, see your local GP and/or get in contact with Lifeline or Beyond Blue.

If you are at LTU, the La Trobe University Counselling Service (for LTU students and staff) can also be a good first port of call. Other universities and education institutions have their own in-house counselling services.

These websites may also be helpful:

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