How to keep from sounding nervous at the beginning of a faculty job talk?
February 4, 2012 12:08 PM   Subscribe

How to keep from sounding nervous at the beginning of a faculty job talk?

While interviewing for faculty job positions in a field that requires you to give an ~hour long talk about your work, what are ways to keep nerves and jitters from affecting how you sound during the first five minutes or so before the effects of practice take hold and smooth it out?
posted by kyrademon to Work & Money (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Tums. I rely on them to keep my stomach settled when I have to talk in public, and that makes me feel calm all over.

Remember that they will be feeling nervous too. "What if this new person is smarter than me and I don't understand their talk and then they get hired and I will forever have to pretend I understand their research or else look stupid next to them in the department?" Start by setting your audience at ease, and you'll set yourself at ease too.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 12:20 PM on February 4, 2012

These are performances, but if you focus on performing, you're going to be nervous.

Try if you are able to stay focused on the substance of your presentation -- it will reduce nervousness, and reinforce the impression that you are intellectually engaged and serious, as opposed to a performing pony. This will convince your potential colleagues that you will do good work and, equally important, be available to speak with about theirs. Good luck.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:11 PM on February 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ideally, I try to start public talks (lectures, first day of class, etc.) from a position of standing to the side talking to someone one on one, because that way there's no countdown/buildup to the first few minutes of the talk--I don't get the sudden shot of adrenaline that makes me jittery, and everything's smooth. If I have any time, like an introduction or someone else speaking for a few minutes, to think about starting the talk right before it happens, then when it happens, bam, adrenaline rush. If that happens, I remind myself it's just an adrenaline rush rather than a genuine sense of foreboding or failure, and that helps a little, because I know it'll pass.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:24 PM on February 4, 2012

I know what you mean. My solution for this problem was to have the opening part even more neurotically rehearsed and practiced than even the rest of it. I wrote out exactly what it was I wanted to say at the top and planned to say those words more or less exactly. This is not a good place to try and wing it.

Here what's written on the top of my job talk Word .doc:

Thank you all for being here this afternoon; I’m very glad to have this opportunity to share a bit of my work with you. I wanted to take a brief moment at the start of my talk and discuss my project as a whole, before diving into the material I’ll be focusing on today, which comes out of the 3rd chapter of the book. I'll begin with a quote from... and it goes on from there.

What almost threw me off was the long, glowing introduction from the chair of the department, which I hadn't really been expecting. Be ready for that if that's the sort of thing that makes you MORE embarrassed.

Take consolation in the fact that you feel much more obviously nervous than you appear. Generally speaking, an audience can't tell. Just breathe deep and run with it. Remember you're there because they already think you're a good fit and because they'd like to hire you.

Last thought: if all your preparations fail and you think you do sound nervous, try to just let it go. After a forty-five minute talk and twenty-minute Q&A, no one will remember that you sounded nervous for a second at the beginning. It's just not a make-or-break moment, in other words.
posted by gerryblog at 1:34 PM on February 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I go to the doctor and she gives me valium or xanax, which I take right before I give a speech. Beta blockers could also work. If you do use any of these medications, make sure you give them a trial run beforehand so you know what to expect from them.
posted by hazyjane at 1:40 PM on February 4, 2012

Video yourself giving your presentation and watch yourself.
Practice it multiple times before giving it.
posted by k8t at 1:59 PM on February 4, 2012

Practice a million times (or as many as you can stand) -- at least for me, this eventually helps with the first few minutes as well. I sometimes practice a talk intro extra times on its own; for job talks I was basically able to give it from memory. If you are still a grad student or a postdoc get an audience from your dept or lab or whatever. People will often view practice job talks as the most important sort of practice talk to go to, and give you tons of feedback. My practice job talks were more intense than any actual job talk I've given.

Try to distance yourself from your desire for the job. (I know, easier said than done...)
posted by advil at 2:43 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

My practice talk was also much more intense than the real thing, but probably in a way that really helped me. I also felt much more nervous at the practice in part because I was performing before people I knew (and who I'd still have to see again if things went south).
posted by gerryblog at 3:19 PM on February 4, 2012

Beta blockers. I got this tip from a professor who's also a performance musician.
posted by LBS at 4:23 PM on February 4, 2012

To be honest, I think sounding a little nervous is okay, perhaps even better than sounding too confident. It will get people on your side. (I gave an academic job talk last year and made a big effort to banish nerves and project confidence, because I've seen talks by people in that department and that's what they do. The feedback from the selection committee was that I sounded "too sure of myself". They gave the job to a woman who blushes and stammers when she gives talks.)
posted by lollusc at 4:24 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

To echo what others have said: sounding nervous isn't the end of the world. Everyone in the room knows you're nervous, probably doesn't notice (or care) that you're nervous, and they've all been in the exact same position as you many times in their lives. The whole interview process can be nerve-wracking, but one thing that I did to calm me down whenever I had a spare moment was to break out my phone and look at pictures of my kids. Good luck!
posted by puritycontrol at 7:07 PM on February 4, 2012

Practice a million times (or as many as you can stand) -- at least for me, this eventually helps with the first few minutes as well

This. Especially if you practice MANY TIMES without notes so that the contour of the talk always shows, even if each telling is slightly different. This will help with the nerves, becuase with enough practice, telling a story will happen even if you are peeing your pants.

Remember, the idea is to demonstrate that you are the expert in your field, can think on your feet, and, most importantly, communicate ideas, NOT that you can give a word-perfect rendition of The Crystalline Talk.
posted by lalochezia at 9:47 PM on February 4, 2012

Yep, it's all about practice. I've given ten or so myself (when you get more senior, the line between a job talk and just a talk can get blurry), and sat through what is probably hundreds of academic job talks at this point in my career, served on well north of 2 dozen search committees, and coached many students on this process (my students almost all wind up working). The thing is, there's "practice" -- as in doing it by yourself or with a few friends -- and "practice," as in having experience doing it for real under pressure. You can't do anything about the latter until you get on some short lists and start interviewing.

It's no different than any other mode of public speaking or performance, and there's a lot at stake. Of course you'll be nervous. There are no surefire "tricks," but make sure you have absolute command and understanding of any media you are using -- nothing causes more awkwardness than a 5 minute fumble with the laptop trying to find the right powerpoint or video clip. Always speak standing up unless it's the department's custom for the speaker to sit (and ASK about this). Don't pace, but move a little. Even the best academic talk will cause some heads to droop at the 30-40 minute mark. Movement, mixing up media and speaking, and making eye contact (don't just read down into the page, know your talk so well you could do it from memory if you had to) all help with this.

So does RULE NUMBER ONE of the academic job talk: speak for absolutely no longer than 45 minutes. There is nothing you can say in an hour you can't say in 45 minutes. Not one minute longer. The discussion -- and how you handle it -- is actually, usually, much more important to your chances. If you cut into discussion time, you are really hurting your chances.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 AM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you are not a natural at improvisation, then write your "asides" into the talk (but don't read them, better to list them on the page as bullet points than full sentences) but you must break the reading frame and connect spontaneously with your potential future colleagues. You must be seen to think on your feet. You must find ways to connect the talk to the interests of folks around the table (so surely someone must have told you: do your due diligence, know the faculty of the department and what they do in some detail, every last one, including the old fogies like me, who can be quite charmed to have a young PhD candidate acknowledge their work's influence, especially if they are starting to feel a little less than cutting edge in their dotage). At least know the books by all the faculty members.

Be alive up there. Anyone could read your paper out loud. That isn't the point. People are thinking "do I want this person for a colleague for 5-7 years, or possible -- ideally -- 20-30 years?" They already know you're smart if you're on the short list. Don't disappoint that expectation, but don't rely on it. They need to know you are energetic, kind, open minded, able to connect and think outside of your own project's box, responsible, competent, charismatic, etc.
posted by spitbull at 5:04 AM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have another trick that has worked well for me and for students of mine, sorry to pepper this thread (but I practically live to see young PhDs get jobs!):

Write an "outline" version of the paper -- just bullet pointed main themes and examples -- and practice giving it as a completely improvised talk, with notes only for reference. It will be awkward and difficult at first. But if you do it a few times, you will know your paper so well you could actually do it without notes.
posted by spitbull at 5:11 AM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

lollusc, the scenario described in your comment made me so angry that I almost flagged it reflexively. The unwritten and contradictory expectations of audiences.... A good possibility to be aware of though, thanks.
posted by vsync at 1:39 PM on February 5, 2012

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