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Overcoming Performance Anxiety When Presenting in Another Language

Giving presentations is rarely easy. In fact, around 75% of Americans fear public speaking, even in their native language. Add the normal levels of anxiety to language anxiety, and it’s understandable why giving a departmental or conference presentation would be daunting. The fast-beating heart and sweaty palms may not go away, but there are ways to make it through with a smile.

Strategies for Familiarizing Yourself with the Language of Your Field

When learning a language for any purpose, the key is to immerse yourself in it. If possible, visit a place where the language is spoken and interact with people who speak it. To learn the vocabulary of your particular field, visit a lab (for a summer or semester) where your target language is spoken or do a postdoc in the language. Because the language of science is English, it is important to learn the terminology of your field in English as well. To practice your pronunciation of field-specific words, consider asking a colleague who is a native speaker to help or practice using voice recognition software.

Preparing for a Presentation

Slides with Visuals and Text      

Too much text on a slide is generally a bad thing, so for any presentation in any language, make sure that the slides aren’t too dense with text. However, you want the audience to receive your message, so put key points on the slides. If you are worried that nervousness will cause you to forget the main ideas, then make sure they’re all in the slides. That way, no matter what, your audience will receive your message. Consider using audio and video clips as part of your presentation as well.

Prepare Notes and Rehearse, Rehearse, and Rehearse Again

You can prepare as many or as few notes as you need. For some people, writing out the whole talk is helpful. For others, just having their key points jotted down is enough. However, it is helpful to have at least some notes with you when you give a presentation. It is not recommended that you read them because it’s not a great way to engage your audience, but having the main points with you can help keep you on track if anxiety interferes with your memory.

Rehearse over and over again. This helps you to gain confidence in your ability to get your message across. Make sure you also enlist the help of others to act as your audience. Ideally, you will have some native speakers of the language of your presentation, as well as other non-native speakers. Use their feedback to improve your presentation.

Think of all possible questions that someone could ask. This is something you can also get your rehearsal audience to help with. Being prepared for questions is important. Giving a talk in another language is tough, but fielding questions is tougher because you need to understand the questioner and come up with an answer. Preparing answers to the most likely questions will allow you to deliver clear, concise answers.

During the Presentation

Engage the audience. Ways to do this are as simple as telling a joke or checking if your audience can understand you by asking periodically during the talk. For example, simply saying, “Was that clear?” helps the audience to pay attention. Remember that there are likely to be other speakers whose native language is also different from the language of your presentation, so they will be sympathetic to your situation.

Resist the urge to speak quickly. It’s tough because most people who give presentations don’t love it, so speeding up may seem like a good way to get it over with. However, people may not understand you, and speaking quickly sometimes results in using more (often unnecessary) words that make less sense to your audience. Keep calm and speak slowly.

Ideally, you’ll have a colleague or labmate in the audience who is fluent in the language of your presentation but also familiar with your native language. If you’re struggling with a word, say the word in your native language and look to someone who will understand what you’re trying to convey. People are usually happy to jump in and provide the correct word.

Finally, remember that you are the expert on your research. No one else in your audience knows it as well as you. Try to keep this in mind when you’re feeling nervous.

Good luck with your next presentation!


The Science of Stage Fright, TEDBlog

Overcoming Language Anxiety, Inside Higher Ed

Presentation Tips for Non-Native Speakers, Science Careers

Effective Oral Presentations, Scitable, Nature Education

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