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The anxious student’s guide to...

by Peter Yeo

...public speaking

Your hands are clammy, your heart is racing, your mouth is dry... and that’s just from thinking about the presentation next week. Abigail Chang and Gwyneth Lim from the university’s Emcee Club and seasoned speakers Prof Kwok Kian Woon and Assoc Prof Valerie Du Toit-Low have some pointers to ease your nerves

Get adequate rest
“Rest well the night before your presentation so your body and mind are in tip-top condition,” advises Abigail.
“Take three deep breaths before you start talking. Gather your thoughts and speak calmly and clearly,” says Assoc Prof Du Toit-Low
Know your audience
“Find out more about your audience beforehand. Knowing who you're addressing removes some of the anxiety that comes with speaking in front of strangers. It’s even better if you personally know one or more people in the audience. You can look at them more often when you're speaking – a familiar face usually helps with the nerves,” says Assoc Prof Du Toit-Low, a lawyer-turned-academic.
Practise, practise, practise
“Do it in front of a mirror in the bathroom when you’re free, or with a friend who can give you honest feedback and encouragement,” advises Abigail. “Rehearse the flow of your presentation so you don’t drone on like a robot.”
Adds Gwyneth: “Master the content as the devil is in the details. I never memorise scripts and instead run through the key points and elaborate as I present, so nothing sounds forced or recited. That said, if it is a time-sensitive presentation or pitch, keep to a script so you don’t overrun the time limit.”
  Visualise your presentation
“Before an event, I like to visualise myself hosting it and making it a success. One trick I use is to find an object or point in the room that is around eye-level to focus on. It makes my gaze look natural,” says Abigail. “When all else fails, visualise everyone in their underwear. My secondary school mentor taught me that. It sounds cliché but it takes the edge off your fear.”

Visualise yourself presenting in front of your audience, such as your course mates and professors. You’ll recognise the familiar environment during the real presentation and feel more at ease.

It’s not about me, it’s about “we”
“Don’t make yourself and your opinion the thrust of the speech. Connect with the audience. When you create that sense of community, your message will be better received,” notes Prof Kwok.
  Watch your posture and gestures
“Don’t shrink. That posture gives the impression you cannot communicate. If you believe in your message, you will be confident. Natural gestures are best as they don’t distract from your message,” Prof Kwok adds.
  Ask for feedback
“Gather feedback on your presentation,” emphasises Gwyneth. “Ask different members of the audience how you did. It will help you refine your presentation skills as different people may have a different point for you to improve on.”

...small talk

Stop feeling skittish about making small talk, because it can lead to big opportunities, for example, if you manage to get a future boss to notice you. Second-year business student Wang Zeyuan from the NTU Toastmasters Club and Prof Kwok and Assoc Prof Du Toit-Low articulate how to get started

Talk to others
“Nobody is ever ready to make great conversation. Go out and grab any opportunity to speak to people, whether it’s at your hall, the canteen, the tutorial room or networking sessions. The more you talk to others, the easier it will become,” says Zeyuan.
  Listen first
“People are always dying to talk. Don’t have an urge to plunge into a conversation. You don’t always need to be the life of the party. Listen to what people are saying, then contribute meaningfully,” advises Prof Kwok.
  Structure your thoughts
“It’s a myth that you need to be knowledgeable to engage in small talk. You can’t know everything. My advice is to break down the topic, find common ground and ask questions. If you can break down a challenge and analyse the problem, you can engage in any conversation,” adds Zeyuan.

Find an entry point
“In the United Kingdom, you’d make conversation by talking about the weather and, why not? It’s important to find a talking point that’s relevant to the occasion,” advises Prof Kwok.
  Find the familiar
“Look for a familiar face as you walk around the room. It's easiest to break into a group of people who are deep in conversation if you can spot someone you know amongst them,” says Assoc Prof Du Toit-Low. “Tap him or her on the shoulder and ask: ‘What are you talking about? May I join in?’ Your friend can then introduce you to the others in the group. Or join the group that is engaged with the main presenter or guest-of-honour. Usually, people who don't know one another want to catch him or her, and you can join them very naturally.”
Mindset switch
“Don’t be afraid to approach a group. You’re not the only one who’s going to benefit from this conversation. You may have something important to contribute to the group as well. For example, after my business case competition, I found a group talking about overcoming the fear of public speaking and it was a subject I know a lot about,” says Zeyuan.
Read the room
“You can benefit a lot from observing someone’s body language. For example, if the person is leaning forward during the conversation, there’s probably interest in what you are saying. If the person is glancing around with their foot pointing away from you, it’s better to let them go and move on,” offers Zeyuan.
  Don’t have an agenda
“Don’t think of networking as a means to an end. Not every session has to end in a lead. Many leads have arisen from people suddenly recalling what you’ve said some time down the road. It’s more important to enjoy the company and add to the conversation,” says Prof Kwok.