The first time I was asked to speak at a public event was nearly 3 years ago, just after I had started my PhD. One of my former tutors was involved in organising a conference at St George’s University and asked if I would be one of the presenters for the day. Even before she had asked, I knew what was coming and I was already trying to think up excuses in my mind as to why I couldn’t do it:
I was busy that day.
I’ve got too much on my plate at the moment to think about doing a presentation.
Sorry, I don’t speak English…see ya!
But to my disbelief what came out of my mouth was “Oh, yeah, sure, sounds good.”
Dear God, what had I done? I had a dreaded fear of presenting in public, stemming back to a traumatising technical mishap at a talent show when I was 11. At least then all I had to put up with were the sniggers of a few meagre teenagers, but this was going to be at a serious academic conference where my reputation was on the line.
I thought I had made an instant mistake by agreeing to be a speaker. I went straight to my supervisor who I was expecting to agree with me and say something like “Oh my! Why would you agree to speak in public, don’t you know how terrifying it is?! Don’t worry I’ll get you out of this one”, when in actual fact he thought it was a great idea. He explained that presenting your research findings is an essential skill as a researcher, that many people involved in research lack the communication skills to get across why their studies are so important and to be able to explain them simply and concisely. He said this would be an excellent opportunity to practice developing these skills.
Fair point. The only problem was that at this point I was only 3 months in to my PhD and had absolutely no findings to present! To boot, I had been given a horrifyingly vague topic to base my presentation on. And to speak for half an hour? Never had half an hour seemed like such an agonisingly long period of time.
The conference was still a fair way off, time was on my side. While this meant I had lots of time to think up a topic to speak about and write the presentation, it also meant I had ample time to dwell on the whole harrowing ordeal. I had a month to prepare, but I also had a month to stress. A month to work myself up. A month of not sleeping well, of day dreaming all the things that could go wrong.
I didn’t understand how some people could get up in front of large crowds and speak so naturally and casually, some do it without even looking at notes! It was like their brain was wired differently from mine. I’ve seen some truly incredible public speakers before, who have inspired and stirred me, but I’ve seen some really mediocre, cruddy ones too, but even they don’t seem to be going under the same sort of torture I was feeling.
I spent hours and hours and hours, writing and rehearsing, editing and fine tuning my presentation, timing myself down to the second. Agonising over the animations for the slides. Should it ‘appear’, ‘Fly in’ or ‘checker’? Don’t even get me started on Prezi. My reasoning was that if I could get through the introduction confidently, really nail it, then that should set me up for the rest of the talk. “Hello, my name is Scott Munro: Hello, my name is Scott Munro: Hello, my name is Scott Munro.” Surely I couldn’t forget my own name?
The day came. Should I eat breakfast? Potential ammunition in case I threw up, but could result in me passing out due to a lack of energy? Coffee! Coffee seemed like a good idea, coffee has always been a trusted comrade, providing caffeine to sharpen the mind. Hmm, but that seemed to make me shake uncontrollably and raise my heart rate to 1000 beats per minute, like I’ve just taken a shot of adrenaline. Betrayal!
I was the fourth speaker at a student paramedic conference with about 50 attendees, but I felt the pressure of a Glastonbury headliner. I took to the stage and said “Hello, my name is… Scott Munro…”. And that’s all I can tell you about it. The rest is a blur.
From the feedback I received it must have gone well, people seemed to enjoy it and get something from it. People were very positive and some even commented that I didn’t look nervous (perhaps they were all lying).
The main thing was, I got through it, I survived, nothing terrible happened. The wave of relief was phenomenal and I even had that burst of adrenaline that you get after doing something like a bungee jump where you feel unstoppable and you want to go and do it again! (Though, I have never done a bungie jump).
Fast forward to the start of October this year. I stroll towards my desk at the university and wave at my Supervisor, who I see is in his office chatting to one of the other professors. He waves me in and explains that they are looking for a speaker at an event being put on at the university in a few weeks time and had suggested that I present at it. Dear God, why again??!! The familiar hot, dense feeling of consuming dread surged through my body, from the pit of my stomach through to my fingers, toes and blushing my cheeks. Please don’t ask me to go through all of that stress again. But the same words came “oh, yeah, sure, sounds good.” (note to self: learn to say no.).
However, the feeling lasts but an afternoon this time around. I reflect on the previous presentation I gave and remember that things went ok. Again, I put the time in to write the talk, prepare and rehearse. This time I even filmed myself rehearsing on my laptop. This proved to be a God send. I didn’t realise how much I was saying “erm” and how annoying it was to listen to. I made a conscious effort not to say it during my talk, but to leave the space for a thoughtful pause instead. I also noticed I was touching my face, in a nervous tick-like fashion. It looked weird. Hold something to stop touching your face.
The presentation came, and I can actually remember this one and it went well. I got all my points across, I felt it came across quite naturally and no mishaps occurred. Again, great feedback from the audience and colleagues that were in attendance. My confidence was growing.
Then just a few weeks ago I was asked to speak again for the Student Paramedic Society at the University of Surrey. My Supervisor was leaving the university (though still carrying on as my supervisor. Phew!!!) and as part of his farewell lecture, the society had asked me to come and present on my PhD. No stress. Where is the stress? Why am I not feeling any stress? Now that I’m not overwhelmed by dread I can think more clearly and actually enjoy the process of writing a talk I think the students will get the most from. There’s still an edge of nerves as I’m being introduced, but it’s more an anticipation and excitement than anything.
While I don’t confess to be a world leading public speaker that should be invited to do a TED talk, I can say that the more you do it, the more comfortable you become. I’m so glad I said “oh, yeah, sure, sounds good” that first time round. It was worth that one nerve wracking ordeal to come out the other side more confident and prepared.
If you ever get asked to speak at an event and you feel like pretending you don’t speak English, just go for it, take the dive, if you put the effort in things won’t go that badly and you’ll learn so much from doing it.
So, if you would ever like me to come and speak at an event you’re holding, I’d be happy to. Just please don’t give me a horrifyingly vague topic to talk about.