Solutions Arts’ team member, Gretchen Kriesen is on a first-name basis with the angst and stress that can accompany public speaking and presenting.
She wears multiple hats at and outside of Solutions Arts. As our lead project manager, she skillfully shepherds projects from concept to implementation, maneuvers obstacles with aplomb, communicates effectively with both clients and project teams, and does all this with a killer sense of humor. Gretchen is also our design guru and document architect. She shares her deep skill set and years of experience in design with her undergraduate students at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. For years, Gretchen has been teaching a variety of communication courses where she combines theory and practice and draws a great deal from her successful career to prepare students for the real world. Knowing all of this, it might be surprising to learn that Gretchen dislikes public speaking and presenting.
We thought: who better to speak on this topic from a personal experience and demonstrate how these best practices and tips apply to the real world? We asked her to share her journey and how she overcomes her presenting fears to give life to what we’ve been discussing in these two articles on presentation skills.
I hated presenting. “Hate” isn’t quite right. I loathed it. I loathed it with every fiber of my being. I loathed it more than making dinner every night for the past four months because we can’t go out to eat. I didn’t even like answering questions in school (constant feedback: “Does not participate in class”). I’m not a huge participant in meetings, either. Given the choice, I wouldn’t speak in front of a crowd. Ever.
And yet, I teach.
Ironically, I teach a course in public speaking.
For the first year, I began each and every teaching day the same: after a sleepless night, I spent my mornings wondering why I was doing this as I checked over my notes and my decks. During my drive, I continued to stress out and review my presentations. When I got to campus, my heart rate went into hyper-drive as I walked to my room. Sometimes I hoped the class was cancelled (yes, sometimes instructors want the classes cancelled, too). By the time I had my hand on the door handle, I was deeply resisting running away and hiding in my car. I was out of breath and sweating.
And then I walked in.
I just … did it.
Over and over again.
And it got easier. It’s true!
Along with all of the tips we’ve talked about in the last two articles, I kept asking myself why I was teaching, why I was doing this thing that scared me, top of mind. You see, I teach because I believe I can help my students prepare for their careers. That’s why I’m there: for them. They are worth the stress. I think this attitude—that, at the very least, the audience isn’t the enemy, really helps keep the anxiety from being overwhelming.
Even with the right attitude, the key to my presentation style is to establish a positive environment and for my talk to feel more like a conversation (one in which I might be hogging the discussion). I do this by connecting with my students and encouraging them to connect with each other. I make sure my examples and vocabulary relate to them; I give them lots of group activities to help them learn and get to know and trust each other. The result (ideally) is interested and engaged audience members who participate and learn. (Sometimes the result is that I epically mess up and we all laugh and move on. When you establish the right environment, mistakes are forgiven.)
Let me underscore that stress is not the enemy. I teach online sections of my classes (both before the pandemic and because of the pandemic). And guess what? No stress. Know what else? I’m less effective. That’s not just my self-assessment; I see it both in the quality of work from my students as well as in the evaluation scores they give me. I think that the lack of stress results in less enthusiasm and less of a connection with my students. So, while I like the angst-free mornings when I teach online, I think that the lack of nervousness works against me and I have to work harder to create the same energy. (And while we’re here, teaching effectively online means changing your lesson plan, decks, and pacing. You have to get creative and work with the software to even come close to the connections you get in a traditional classroom. It isn’t as simple as slapping the same content into Zoom and running with it. Ask any teacher or professor and they’ll tell you the same.)
I still get nervous, but it’s not paralyzing. I still stress-sweat, but it’s not a big deal. The first day of classes is harder than the last. Some days in between are great. Some fall flat. But each time I get up there, I learn a little more and I get a little better.
It does get easier. I tell my students all the time: the more you get up there and do it, the better you’ll be. It’s a combination of honing your skills, learning what works for you, and being able to look back and say, “I’ve already done this so I know I can do it again.” As with most things, it takes practice and focus. And maybe a little bit of angst.
Gretchen Kriesen is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Polytechnic Institute and a business and design consultant for Solutions Arts. She also took a Buzzfeed quiz that told her she was funny, so she’s added that to her resume.
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