I am well aware that, when it comes to preparing to give a talk at a conference, "practice makes perfect". The problem is that, realistically, it tends not to be possible to find an audience for more than one or two run-throughs, so the only remaining possibility is to practice on my own.

Unfortunately, I have always found this to be basically impossible – it's very hard for me to get over how weird it feels to be "talking to myself", and if I do try to force myself to proceed, I always find myself getting horrendously tongue-tied in ways that I don't in front of a live audience. This almost seems like the opposite problem from what many people experience, but I find that the presence of an audience gives me energy and helps to get my brain in gear. I'm curious as to whether other people have the same problem and possible techniques for practicing more effectively.

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    A bit silly perhaps, but some programmers use rubber ducks as stand-ins for humans. You might try it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging – Anonymous May 15 at 0:50
  • I've heard about a similar approach using teddy bears as a fake audience. – Anyon May 15 at 0:57
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    +1 for the question! // I haven't tested this out, but how about using some Speech to Text software to "listen" to your presentation? // Here's something I have done (but not for presentations): in preparation for a recital, I got nice and comfortable, closed my eyes, and used my imagination to go through the whole recital, from beginning to end. (Worked best with memorized pieces.) I imagined myself coming out on stage, taking the bow, tuning, playing, etc. Putting my imaginary self on stage gave me the pinch of adrenaline I needed for it to function as a dry run. – aparente001 May 15 at 2:22
up vote 2 down vote accepted

For my last practice run, I either ask my group to use them as test audience or I "set the stage". As I guess you already asked everybody and now nobody has time to listen for the third time, let's try and set the stage.

We have a so-called "seminar room" in the vicinity which is rarely used for teaching (actually my own teaching is currently the most regular thing in there). This means it is free to use a lot of the time, especially if you come in early or stay late. I go to this room and set myself up. There is a presenter and if no one is in the room I would sometimes open the windows that I am facing while presenting, so I could imagine "the world" is listening.

Sometimes if I am lucky some students are in there, passing time between lectures. Many know the room is often empty and relaxingly silent. I explain to them what I plan to do and invite them to listen. They are often shy to really give advice, but someone is there and I imagine they might take home something even if they did not listen closely.

So, I try to at least "set up a full presentation stage" and maybe I can attract some spontaneous audience.

  • "I either ask my group to use them as test audience" OP stated that this is no option since no one will listen to 10 test talks... – DSVA May 15 at 11:42
  • That's why it was just the "intro" to the other option. – skymningen May 15 at 12:32
  • I tried "set the stage" technique just recently. I found an empty auditorium (the bigger the better!) with a projector and I found that I was able to give my talk exactly as I would with an audience! +1 – Dominic Else Aug 25 at 1:57

Perhaps you are practicing the wrong thing. If in fact you have no trouble speaking smoothly when you are front of a live audience, then you don't need to practice that. You may need to practice how you 'enter' a slide (what concept or thought you will discuss first), or how to transition to the next slide (what is the final concept or thought, and how does it connect with the next thing you want to talk about). You may need to practice what words you say in the introduction... you don't want to make that up on the fly.

In other words, do what professional musicians do. They rarely play an entire piece through during practice, but instead repeat the challenging sections.

With the goal of working out the words you will use in the tricky parts, practice will feel less artificial and more productive. Don't sweat the pieces you already know. At the end, do a dry-run with an audience to test the timing and the flow.

  • I do like this answer, which is almost the opposite of the others, which are about making practice seem "more real". It's not really the "public-speaking" aspects which I'm looking to improve on (though I probably could), but rather the technical aspects of the presentation, to make it more understandable and useful to the audience. Perhaps just thinking carefully about what I'm going to say, slide-by-slide, is the way to go. – Dominic Else May 16 at 2:27

You could try a virtual reality app. There are some for android. They run on Google Cardboard and, some run on Google Daydream as well. If you have a headset already, you might give this a try. I have not tried properly myself yet because the apps were a bit buggy. But, the software provides an okay approximation of an audience. Moreover, there is plenty of psychological support on the efficacy of virtual-reality to help overcome fears (e.g., public speaking). Not suggesting you have such a fear, but I think half the reason we practice public speaking is to make ourselves confident.

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    Very creative answer. Wish there was a double-vote option. But seriously, this is actually a very interesting solution to the problem: "No one would listen to me, so I created my own people to listen." – SH7890 May 15 at 14:27

Try speaking in front of a mirror(s), which might make it seem like you do have a live audience (your reflection). If you don't have suitable mirrors on hand, you could try asking your university's physics department.

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    For me at least, this would make me feel horribly self-conscious! Have you actually had good luck with this? – aparente001 May 15 at 2:18

Record the video/voice when you presenting. That is how I do it.

There are some methods which have worked wonders for me.

(1) Getting some teddy bears or dolls as human stand-ins and present your work to them while recording it . Replay the recording later to asses yourself and fix your mistakes.

(2) Get a few of your friends over and practice with them. I found this especially helpful as they can provide critical and helpful advice on the spot from various perspectives.

(3) Close your eyes and imagine yourself in front of the crowd and begin your speech. If you stumble , just keep the pace and then focus on fixing it later.

Also some extra tips;

While you are presenting the work. try to look into the crowd and focus on a familiar face or something like a poster near the audience. If you stammer do not start panicking but continue with your normal pace . That way you wont draw attention to it. Keep yourself calm and practice some quick breathing techniques if needed.

Good luck!

I used to be the same. There is no easy fix, but it turns out that you already discovered the secret: "Practice makes perfect". Just push through, and in the end it won't feel weird anymore. I don't have a practical, actionable magic fix – you just need to practice.

Maybe one advice: I feel less stupid if I rehearse sitting down looking at my desk rather than standing up and pretending I talk to a ghost audience in front of me. If I'm preparing a blackboard talk (not easy to do sitting down), I rehearse once or twice by writing on a piece of paper and talking before rehearsing with the blackboard to get the timing right.

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