First defense and the talking jitters

Today was not only a big day because of the Scientopia launch, but also because I had my first student defend. This was a student who started with me a little less than two years ago and has done an excellent job getting things done at a time I needed it most. It's great that the student finished up and that a paper is almost ready to go, it is just odd losing one if the people who has been here since the beginning - but such is the nature of the beast.

One thing that the student asked me, which is a bit of a reoccurring theme, is how many talks did I have to give before I stopped getting nervous. I had to think about it, because whereas it has been a while since I got nervous before a talk, as a young and naive PLS I was a total fucking wreck before a talk. My knees used to shake during talks and even the anticipation made my digestion to bad, bad things.

So, I graphed it (this is science afterall):

Nervousness relative to talk experience.

I think for the first little while it doesn't seem like you are going to adjust. Every talk you are just as nervous as the one before and the only difference is you know how bad it is going to be. Somewhere after about 10 talks it starts to get better, but only marginally so (from eleventy to something in the normal range). Then there is a magical moment when you are no longer terrified the entire time you have to stand there and be the sole voice in the room. Once this happens there is a plateau where you still feel the nerves a bit before a talk and in the first minute or so, but you have the ability to crush those feelings once you start rolling. They persist, however, and can rear their ugly head if the environment changes substantially (really big talk, job talk). After that stage the bottom drops out and it pretty much becomes telling a story.

Maybe it takes a little longer for some and a little less for others, but the only way to deal with a fear of public speaking is to get up there and realize that there isn't that much to fear. Yes, we have all had that time we looked stupid standing in front of a crowd stammering out a circular answer to a question we barely understood, but to my knowledge, no deaths have been associated with such an experience. Often they become part of the War Story arsenal one can use to make others feel better (you think you looked like an ass? Let me tell you a little story...)

It's easy to look at people who seem to be natural speakers and think they left the womb that way, but I can assure you that at some point almost everyone has been terrified to stand up and present their work in front of crowd of like-minded individuals and everyone has a horror story. Rarely is new ground forged in this arena.

18 responses so far

  • Ha! I am going to print this out for my students.

  • Dr. O says:

    Love this post. I gave my first invited talk at a conference this past week, and I actually blogged about how nervous I was before leaving. I had just gotten used to giving departmental seminars and the like (which seemed to take forever). But this was a pretty big deal in comparison, and I thought I was going to die all week long waiting for my turn. The first couple of minutes of the talk felt like hell, but then things calmed down as I got into my story-telling mode. By the time the question-answer session started, I felt back at home. Hopefully the job talks (if I ever get an interview) will go just as well...

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I think this is generally true, but I think even fairly confident speakers can be completely thrown off their game if they fail to prepare adequately or if something goes completely bizarre with the setup or audience.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    All opinions, especially in graph form, are the gospel truth. Except when they aren't. Or there are exceptions.

  • Gotta love a scale that goes to 11!

    My public speaking nerve levels have plateaued at 10 although the audience typically perceives me as being at 1. It's all about developing coping skills and being able to fool people.

  • I love this post, and will not doubt be something I refer myself and other people to from time to time, though I completely agree with the comments of Christina - even the most confident and brilliant of speakers can be thrown off by bizarre situations or audience questions. It was quite a regular occurrence in one of the seminars I used to attend at undergrad - one of the group heads would throw out so so many questions, some basic, some advanced and some bizarre and it was quite surprising to see fantastic speakers literally start falling apart at very basic (undergrad) level questions. Preparation definitely counts for a lot - including that undergrad basic stuff that you think everyone will/does know.

  • ziadax says:

    So, so true. Saving this post as a reminder. I used to be terrified to the point of tears at public speaking until I realized that the less I actually thought about the public speaking part of it and the more I just prepared the substance of the talk, the calmer I'd be. I still get nervous, but as I testify in public all the time now, once I'm actually speaking I don't feel it unless a question comes so far out of left field that I have no clue where to even start answering it.

  • Sen says:

    I'm unfortunately still at the peak of that graph. At least it's all downhill from here.

    A very enjoyable article.

  • tideliar says:

    I remember asking my Grad school advisor the same thing before he gave his tenure talk. He said the same thing as you, but confided to me right before the Big Talk that he was terrified because the importance of this particular talk suddenly hit him - this could affect his tenure decision!

    I played drums in bands for years and years, so I got used to handling stage fright. I guess I go on as a 5 nowadays, but come across as a 1 or so. Like PiT said, it's all about putting on a show!

  • Nice post! Fortunately, I've passed the peak of that graph. But for me, this graph needs to be shifted upward as English is not my native tongue. I remember those first couple of talks...damn it was something !!

    I agree that preparation counts a lot. In fact, you could tell when I was well prepared...you just had to compare my (prepared) talk and my (somewhat unprepared) answers to questions...

    These were the good old days !!

  • Does the curve dip below the x-axis? Perhaps at some point you become *so* comfortable, you make the audience nervous.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    When you wear a smoking jacket and show up hammered.

  • Principle Investigator says:

    I just gave my first conference talk since I started teaching full time at my RUI two years ago, and I was amazed at how much less nervous I felt. I think I'd always pulled it off previously, but with my heart racing and legs turned to jelly. This time I actually felt confident and excited to have the opportunity to "teach" others about my project. And it definitely wasn't because the data were more solid or anything like that - in fact, I had incorporated last minute results that changed my model only the night before. So I conclude, as suggested by your graph, that practice is key!

  • gnuma says:

    I'm nervous every frickin time I give a talk, regardless of it's in front of undergrads or at a big conference. I didn't sleep before my job talks and threw up before each of them.

    That said, I've been told I give a good talk, and once it's over, am glad of the experience. My next goal in life is to work on giving a *great* talk, like one of the ones you see that make the audience feel all smart and excited. I think this can be done, yes? I really worked on writing a better paper, so it follows that one can work on becoming a better speaker.

    My worst experience was my first conference (rhymes with schmevolution) talk -- didn't sleep, couldn't process the questions, and afterwards, had sweat stains. Sweat stains! I'm a chick, we're not supposed to sweat profusely! wtf.

  • physioprof says:

    [I]t was quite surprising to see fantastic speakers literally start falling apart at very basic (undergrad) level questions.

    The only appropriate answer to that kind of question in an advanced research seminar is "I'm sorry, but there really isn't time to provide a basic tutorial in the context of this research seminar, but if you come up afterwards, I'd be happy to try to help you out."

  • drskyskull says:

    physioprof wrote: "...but if you come up afterwards, I’d be happy to try to help you out."

    Don't forget to follow that up with: "Did I say that too fast for you?" >:)

  • I remember finding a senior prof hiding in the bathroom a few minutes before one of her talks, freaking out and telling me how scared she was... I guess some people never get past the first part of that graph!

    The only really important thing though is that you learn to hide the nerves. People always used to say "oh, you didn't look nervous" after I'd finished giving a talk that had robbed me of several nights sleep and made me shake for an hour or so before it started.

  • Dorothea Salo says:

    I'm one of those weirdos who generally thinks public speaking is fun.

    Yet I too have given a couple talks where I was scared out of my tiny mind. One in particular I might well have fled from if not for spraining my knee the day before such that flight was not an option.

    That one turned out to be the best talk I've ever given. I have yet to surpass it. Go figure.

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