Public speaking is a big part of any academic’s job (and many other jobs, come to that). Crippling nerves are debilitating, and can inhibit a speaker’s flow and presence. If you suffer from severe nerves in this way, the best advice I can give you is to a) seek professional guidance on public speaking, and b) to practise and do it often.
I recently gave a talk at a conference. It is something I have done many, many times before. I have been on numerous presentation and public speaking courses, given lectures to both small and large groups, and to specialised and general audiences. But I still get nervous, each and every time. Butterflies in the stomach, tension in the body, a restless sleep the night before. Sometimes my hands shake. Thanks to practise and some coaching I can hide these things, and project a confident, professional image. Sometimes, when I get going, I even enjoy it.
The week before this particular conference, I was very busy (as usual), with limited time to prepare slides. I didn’t have time to practise and this contributed even more to my nerves. This meant I was up early the day of the talk, rearranging my slides and talking aloud to myself, and making sure I was going to be able to keep to time.
But I think that nerves are a good thing. The adrenaline gives you a boost and energy. You try a little bit harder and practise a little bit more. The talk I gave went very well, and I’m sure that if I hadn’t been nervous, I wouldn’t have made the extra effort to get up a little bit earlier for some last minute practise. Not being nervous may mean complacency and over-confidence. It’s good to be a little bit nervous. It means you care.