Challenging anxious thoughts

Speaking in public is hard enough but what makes it harder is that probably 80% of your brain cells are working for the other side. As you’re preparing to present or in the middle of your presentation it’s likely that some of the following thoughts are running through your mind:

  • I’ll forget everything
  • People will ask questions I can’t answer
  • I’ll stutter
  • I’m going red
  • I’ll be boring – they will be bored – they are bored
  • I’ll get confused
  • I don’t know enough
  • Why am I doing this?

These are very normal thoughts. Most speakers, even confident ones, will have some of these thoughts. In psychology these are known as Automatic Negative Thoughts – ANTs. This means they are automatic. You didn’t ask to have them. They just pop into your head. And they are negative because, well, they are negative! And having these thoughts, these ANTs, is very likely to make you feel anxious. In fact they’re what make you feel anxious.

But just because you have the thoughts doesn’t mean they’re true. Let’s look more accurately at the thoughts and try to find what I call the More Accurate Thoughts (MATHs).


This process of looking at your thoughts more accurately should help reduce the anxiety
a bit. You might find it useful to actually write down your Automatic Negative Thoughts and the more accurate challenges.

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Answering questions

First of all it’s useful to know that most people, and many accomplished speakers, find question time a bit daunting. It’s not just you! One of the reasons people find it scary is that it’s unpredictable. With your presentation you can prepare and you know what you will say. But with questions you have less idea of what will arise. You are a bit more at the mercy of the audience. However you can still prepare.

Here are a range of strategies.

Prepare for the obvious questions

In reality, question time should not really be about the audience checking out your specific knowledge, for example, name the planets in the correct order. Usually it is for general questions about your approach, clarifying your reasons for particular decisions and raising other approaches. So you don’t have to know every fact in the universe and you can predict some of the obvious questions.

Imagine you were part of the audience. What questions would pop into your head? Get a friend to listen to your talk and then ask them what questions they can think of. Because you know the topic well (hopefully) you should be able to identify the more obvious questions.

Then try a bit harder to imagine the less obvious questions. Imagine the different types of people at your talk. What specific interests might they have? What matters to them?

Obviously, once you’ve identified the questions you need to prepare plausible answers.

If you can’t think of an answer

Sometimes, especially when you’re under pressure, your mind will go blank. It happens to all presenters. You might not be able to recall some fairly simple piece of information. You can say:

  • “My mind’s gone blank on that issue. Come and see me afterwards.”
  • “I can’t remember the details at the moment. Can anyone else help?”

If you don’t know

One choice is to simply admit that you do not know the answer. For example:

  • “I don’t have an answer for that question. If you come up and see me afterwards we can talk about it.”
  • “That’s a very interesting question. I don’t have the answer off the top of my head but I’m happy to discuss it with you afterwards.”

Questions outside the scope of your presentation

Nobody knows the answer to every question so there will be some that you can’t answer. Here are some responses:

  • “That’s a great question but that was beyond the scope of our project/topic.”
  • “Thanks for that question. It’s a great suggestion and that could be a topic for future work.”
  • “My focus in this presentation was …”

Buying thinking time

One of the problems with question time is that you don’t have much time to think of a clever response. (This is made worse of course by 80% of your brain cells being consumed by anxiety.) So here are some ways to buy some time.

Repeat the question. You can say:

  • “Thanks for that. So your question is [insert question].
  • “I’ll just repeat that so everyone else can hear it.”
  • “So just to clarify, your question is …”

Hopefully while you are saying that, something clever (or even anything at all!) pops into your head.

You can also use the audience for help.

For example:

  • “So the question is [insert question]. What do others think?”

Once again while you are waiting, hopefully you can think of a response. You could even return the question to the questioner!

  • “That’s an interesting point. Do you have any thoughts yourself about …”




So while question-time might not become fun for you there are strategies you can use to make it less daunting.

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Should you be talking at all? A checklist.

If you’ve put in an abstract for a conference and been accepted, then we can assume you want to present and you’ve got some idea of the topic. However there will many other times where you are asked to present, for example department seminars, guest lectures, community groups. To increase your chances of success there are some questions you should ask right at the start. Use the following checklist to help decide if you should be talking at all.


Is this the right topic?

Just because someone has suggested a topic for you doesn’t mean you can’t change it or negotiate parts of it.

Do I know anything about this topic?

Can I change/select the topic?

You may be able to suggest a better topic or one you are more comfortable with.

Is the length appropriate?

You might want longer or shorter.

Do I have the time to prepare for this?

To do it properly will take time. Have I got the time?


Once you’ve answered these questions then make a rational decision about whether to accept, to negotiate something different or to decline.

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Inviting questions

You need to find out how questions are going to be managed at your presentation. For some presentations it will be quite clear, for example, they might state that in your fifteen minute presentation, you present for ten minutes and allow five minutes for questions. In other cases it might be up to you. Sometimes the convenor or Master of Ceremonies will manage the question time for you. Sometimes people might want to ask questions as you go through the presentation.

Check all this out beforehand. Contact the person organising the event and find out what the expectations are. If you are a novice or nervous presenter it is probably best to keep the questions till the end of the presentation, otherwise you may get a bit lost with your content or the timing. If the format is that you present for ten minutes and allow five minutes for interaction, this is probably enough time for three or four questions. If the talk is longer, say 45 minutes, then you would probably allow 10 to 15 minutes for questions.

For some speakers a bigger fear than difficult questions is getting no questions at all. Then there’s that horrible silence which seems to drag on forever. So here are some ways to invite questions. As you get to the end of your talk you say “In a moment there is some time for questions. Before that I will just recap some of the major points.” And then you highlight some of the areas where there might be questions or you might like people to ask questions. If there is still a silence you can create your own question. For example you could say “One of the things people regularly want to know is [insert question that you know the answer to]”. This can sometimes get the ball rolling.

Another strategy is to place a confederate or stooge in the audience. You give them a question beforehand. (Obviously one that you know the answer to!) You can do the same thing with the convenor. You would say to him/her “When I finish, if there aren’t any questions please ask this question”.

If there are no questions, and this often happens, then say “I think that’s it then. Thank you for your attention” and leave. Remember there may be several reasons people don’t have questions. They want to move on to the next talk, or they have somewhere to go or you’ve answered all the obvious questions.

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Moments of terror!

Most of us have been through it. Those momTerrorents before you are called up to the lectern to speak. It’s too late to run away or call in sick. You’re trapped. You curse yourself for the decision to put in that abstract. You curse the people who talked you into it. All the clever ideas and killer lines don’t seem so great any more.

Your heart is starting to beat fast. In fact it’s thumping around in your chest. You’re starting to sweat. Your hands have become clammy and the room is suddenly very stuffy.

You fiddle with your notes to make sure they’re all there. While you’re fiddling you drop them so then you have to re-organise them. Again. You struggle to pick them up because your fingers have turned into paws and they’re not connected to your brain any more.

Your brain is working overtime but it’s just showing re-runs of horror movies. You falling over as you walk to the stage. You standing there and no words coming out. The audience laughing at your open fly. The impossible questions. Or worse – the easy questions, and you stuffing them up.

And then it’s your turn. The next twenty minutes pass in a blur. You manage to get through it without major disaster and promise yourself that you’ll never do this again or at the very least you’ll be more prepared the next time.

Most people have had one or more experiences like this. It’s not fun and it’s no wonder many people avoid making presentations. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

There are some techniques you can learn that will take the terror out of giving presentations and with practice turn you into an accomplished presenter. This website and the accompanying book will tell you what they are.

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