Conquering My First Conference Presentation

by MaryLyn Silverstein
My stage fright goes as far back as grade school. I have one vivid memory of being completely uncomfortable in an elementary school Christmas play. I was a shy and timid girl who had to stand on a stage and sing some Christmas song with my classmates while wearing a red and green elf hat. My brother, who was in a grade higher than me, was across the stage in the same play; I remember wondering how he could be so calm and collected while tons of eyes were staring at us. At the age of eight, I can remember becoming sweaty and nervous on stage. I remember surviving the play but never wanting to participate in another one again.
My fear of public speaking was an aspect of my personality that I believed I would grow out of. In high school, I stumbled through required presentations. If it was a group project, I usually managed to get by with sweaty palms and talking as fast as a character from Gilmore Girls. However, when I was alone in front of an audience, my anxiety and fear would take over me. I never practiced my presentations nor did I share my anxiety with anybody; I believed if I acted like it was not a big deal, then maybe it would not be a big deal this time around. There were two instances in high school where I remember crying in front of my peers and teachers because I was so terrified of giving a presentation. Each time, I never spoke of it after it happened and continued to believe that my fear would vanish overnight.
Traumatizing as it was, I headed into undergrad and even graduate school still believing that I would simply grow out of my fear. I learned quickly that in Student Affairs presentations are a commonality. I hid my fear and forced myself to present because it was a requirement for my program and my assistantship. Soon, my anxiety during presentations became noticeable to my peers and coworkers. There was no hiding my cracking voice, shaking hands, and bright red face as I gave presentations as fast as possible. My peers would tell me ‘good job’ even though we all knew I had not done a good job.
I survived my first year of graduate school with some presentations simply going better than others. I avoided presentation opportunities because I felt safer as an audience member than a presenter. I was not challenging myself nor was I seeking out help to conquer my fear.
As my first year of graduate school ended, I listened to my peers talking about conference presentation proposals. My first instinct was to continue hiding from presentations but I soon realized that I was missing out on an important professional development opportunity. I felt that if I did not present at a conference then I would be falling behind in comparison to my peers.
Scared, but hopeful, I reached out to a few close friends to submit different conference proposals. The first one I submitted was rejected and I felt more relief in the moment than disappointment. The relief did not last long as I fell back into the feeling of comparison and falling behind.
I reached out to another close friend to see if she would want to submit a proposal to an upcoming conference we would both be attending. Kandace understood my fear and I trusted her to help me through it. We submitted a proposal on advocating for yourself as a graduate student for the Kansas Student Affairs Conference and our proposal was accepted. I felt a mixture of pride and paralysis when I realized we were going to present together. My biggest fear was making a fool of myself by crying in front of a crowd at a state conference.
But, luckily for me, Kandace was not going to let me fail. Kandace, an activator at heart, took the lead in prepping our presentation and coordinating a time to work on it together. After we completed our first draft, she reached out to my supervisor, Sam, to ask if we could practice in front of her. Of course Sam said yes because she was not going to let me fail either.
After our first run through, we were given a lot of feedback to improve our presentation. We made our edits and the next day ran through a much clearer presentation in front Sam again. Two days later, we presented in front of a crowd of 20-30 strangers in Wichita, Kansas.
I felt the jitters as the room filled with conference attendees but I reminded myself to just breathe. I was speaking from my own experience and practiced the presentation multiple times; I knew what I needed to say and when I needed to say it. As we presented, I felt myself become more confident with each slide of our PowerPoint. At one point, I even made a reference to a Fifth Harmony song because it felt right in the moment; I was going off script and enjoying myself. I was not panicking, I was not crying, and I was not giving up. After we finished our presentation, we had four attendees who stayed after to ask Kandace and I questions.

Conquering that presentation was the proudest of myself I had been in a while. I was grateful for a friend who was willing to present alongside me and for a supervisor who offered critical feedback to challenge and support me. I am unsure of when I will present at a conference again but at least I know that I am capable and that practice actually does make perfect.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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