Guest post by Tom Chapman
My students frequently win prizes for their conference presentations (2015 was a particularly good year for our group), and I am more than willing to bask in their reflected glory. But really, was I a brilliant speaker in my day? Simply put, no. I have gotten better, you can’t help it, it just comes with age. And perhaps having taken my lumps, I am now able to provide some helpful advice. Looking back on my public speaking experiences, I think I can offer two lessons for students that are worried about presenting at scientific meetings: (1) there is time to develop as a speaker (2) in the meantime, if you are earnest; that is, you think you have something to say, no matter how modest, that could benefit your audience, your presentation is going to go well. To demonstrate these lessons, what follows is primarily the story of my last, and scariest, undergraduate presentation. Although, I start this story the year after that.
It was orientation day for us newly enrolled graduate students. We were shown the library, we met the office staff, we met our graduate student representatives and we were given advice on various aspects of graduate student life by the faculty. One grad-rep told us that these were to be the “best days of our lives!” I was hopeful, but she turned out to be very wrong (lots of bloggy grist there for another time). More nonsense was presented to us on the subject of presentations. Let’s call this presenter Professor Ramrod. Never use humour in a talk – and there was none to be found in Ramrod’s Address. Men should wear a tie and jacket and women should wear a skirt suit. He was wearing a classic tweed jacket with leather elbow patches; yup, I’m sure you are picturing him perfectly now. During this presentation I tried and failed to make knowing eye contact with my fellow novices. They must have been concentrating very hard on their poker faces, otherwise, were they really taking seriously this dinosaur’s fashion advice? Ramrod’s list of no-no’s continued: never lean on the lectern, never move out from behind the lectern, never put your hands in your pockets, never… In brief, this teacher of the highest rank’s take home message: there is only one way to give a presentation. What bullshit! I think you get advice like this from people that assume when they find themselves at their destination that every step they took en route was a positive and essential one. And they must be incurious in the stories of others in order to believe that they have found the one true path. I have a colleague that told me his secret to winning large research grants. I leaned forward attentively as he said “use plenty of sub-headings.” Ta-da! I’ve read his grant applications. He is wildly successful despite using a ludicrous number of pointless sub-headings. Similarly, my ramrod impaled professor above, was successful despite being an uninspiring orator. Take note here, you have to give presentations, but you don’t need to be good at it to have a career in science. On that first day of orientation, I sensed that presentation-cat-skinning could be done a number of ways, but I hadn’t found my way. In fact, my last presentation as an undergraduate was a nightmare.
I was enrolled in a research course where you conduct an original project, write a paper about it, and then present it to the faculty. My project was in the Canadian high arctic (Truelove lowlands on Devon Island, to be more precise), and I was measuring the amount of heat energy absorbed by the inflorescences of Salix arctica, the arctic willow. What does this have to do with insects? Not a lot, I focused on the impact of heat on the development time of pollen and ovules. But maybe you didn’t know that some insects can be attracted to some plants for the heat energy they offer. I did find fly larvae in some of the fuzzier inflorescences of the willows on Devon, but I didn’t pursue it. If that observation hasn’t already been noted and published by others, you’re welcome to it. Everything that was involved in executing this project, even the data analysis and writing, was a thrilling experience for me. I had plenty of help and inspiration from others, and I do credit this experience with influencing my decision to pursue a career in research. Again, my oral presentation was almost the undoing of that.
While helping me to prepare my talk, my adviser could sense that I was very nervous. So, he told me the story of the student he supervised in the course the previous year. Apparently, this student did a great job collecting data and putting together the final paper. His presentation went well enough, but the final slide, no one knows why, was a picture of this student and his girlfriend. They were both naked, spread eagled and caught in mid-jump off the end of someone’s cottage dock. There was no microphone in the classroom, but it was certainly a drop-mic moment. He took no questions and walked out of the room never to be seen again, or so I was told. I think I was to take from this story that no matter how bad my presentation went it wouldn’t be that bad. Instead, what I took from this story was that it was possible to screw up so horribly that you could be remembered forever and used as a warning to others. It never helps, don’t tell these stories when someone is feeling anxious. It’s the same rule when trying to comfort someone before a comprehensive exam or dissertation defence. When you say something like, “don’t worry about it, Terri passed and she’s an idiot”, that just means to your listener that not only will they fail, they’ll be stupider than Terri. If you get told an apocryphal public speaking story, keep a few things in mind. The teller usually wasn’t present at the talk, so who knows how true the story is, and the teller never goes on to say what happened to the person afterwards. I didn’t see spread-eagle boy’s talk, I can’t be sure of its veracity, but if my advisor had gone on to say that the guy passed the course anyway, and that spread-eagle boy and his girlfriend are still in love and doing crazy fun things together, I would have felt better. Public speaking is rarely lethal, and even if it goes badly the impacts on you and your career are local and temporary.
I didn’t have that perspective the evening before this arctic willow talk. I didn’t sleep at all, and let’s just say that I left the bathroom fan on for the night. There were five of us to give talks, I was last. There were about 15 faculty and a handful of graduate students in attendance, each of them was armed with five printed sheets of paper to guide them in their evisceration of the five of us. The small size of the classroom made it very cramped and, therefore, this already intimidating audience was made more menacing. I don’t know how my classmates performed or what their projects were about because I was lost in anxious thoughts. When my turn finally came I was bloated with gas and in pain. I gingerly walked to the lectern and then stood unmoving. I was following Professor Ramrods future advice, but only because I was afraid if I moved I would fart. When I began my talk I discovered that my tongue would repeatedly release with a clack from the roof of my very dry mouth. I would utter a few sentences that sounded like clack, clack, clack, clack, and then I would pause. During these pauses I would switch hundreds of times rapidly between two panicky thoughts: run away now and never look back; stick it out and finish this crappy little lecture. Then I would continue clack, clack, clack, clack, pause, clack, clack, clack, clack, pause until my talk was finished. I wasn’t completely sure how it went, but at least I didn’t fart. I wonder if there is someone out there who was unable to say that at the end of their presentation?
In my evaluations several people indicated irritation that they couldn’t see the whole screen because I was blocking some of it, and they suggested that I move around a bit; they didn’t know I had gas, but fair enough. More shocking was that the majority of my evaluators described my frequent pauses as thoughtful. What was sheer panic was largely perceived by my audience as calm control, or they were willing to put the best spin on it. I got an okay mark, so it would appear that even this assembly, stacked with smarty-pantses, was willing to work to understand my message and could sympathize with a young person who was obviously nervous. Caring audiences are not just found at home. Years later, a lab-mate of mine gave a talk at an international meeting. She always put awesome hours of preparation into her talks. Although, to see her present was like visiting Disney’s Hall of Presidents. Like an automaton, she would appear to rise slowly from beneath the stage and then would begin human enough looking head and hand movements while unerringly running through her very formal monologue. But, during this presentation something jammed a cog in her works and she stumbled on the word “phylogeneticist” and then blurted out loudly “I screwed up!”. She then continued with her script, took questions and left the stage. I caught up with her a little later, she had clearly had had a cry, she is not the robot you see on stage. While we chatted several strangers interrupted us to tell her how much they appreciated her presentation. One woman went so far as to say it was the best presentation of the meeting; no small praise, we were in the third day of the conference program of about 1000 talks. Every audience is filled with these wonderful people. Yes, there are a few sociopaths out there, but they are hugely outnumbered and you can count on the rest of us to understand what you are going through and to pull you along.
Back to my undergrad presentation, the other positive comment from my assessors was how well I handled their questions. In Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, there is a chapter called The Curse of Knowledge. He argues that painfully unintelligible writing arises from the author failing to imagine “what it’s like for someone else not to know something that [they] know”. I did that with this talk. I failed to realize that no one in that room was there on the tundra with me, nor had anyone else been to the arctic at all. The questions were simple, and now I can see how I had motivated them. I have come to really look forward to questions (I would rather cut short my presentation than to miss hearing from the audience), they are the best indication to me of how well my message came through, and it’s a small disaster when I get no questions at all.
In summary, my group emotionally support each other (I get support too), we focus and refine our talk messages, we take risks by exploring new ways to communicate those messages, we think about our audience’s perspective and we count on empathy from those audiences. If some scientific society wants to give one of us a cheque, then the drinks are on the winner.