I don’t advise doing this, yet it is a common option for those with a fear of speech delivery.
Public speaking has never been something I considered to be a “strong suit” of mine. There were things I did well growing up, and speaking in front of an audience certainly wasn’t one of them. In high school, I hated answering questions in class. I hated delivering speeches. I didn’t like being singled out in front of the class. Basically, I feared anything that would put me up in front of a group of my peers, or adults, and I avoided it like the plague.
With that in mind, I wanted to write up a blurb about my lectures last week and wanted to talk about them from the public speaking angle, so I checked into when it was that I last even mentioned “public speaking” on the blog. Low and behold, I find that it was in a post dated January 8, 2006. At the time, I was lamenting the fact that I had to deliver a presentation for the biomedical sciences program at SLU, in an event called a Colloquium. As a graduate student at SLU, in the CORE biomedical sciences program, during your second semester in the program, you needed to pick an academic paper, research it, and present it in front of the rest of the people in the program, including four separate departments. Usually, this group would involve other students and professors, typically never going above 50 people, but frequently only featuring 20+ people in attendance. The scary part, of course, is that you were presenting this information in front of professors and they could ask you questions.
Tough questions. Questions you knew you couldn’t answer, even though they thought you could, or should.
Unfortunately, looking back on that particular presentation, it wasn’t very pretty. I had chosen a pretty boring paper and I didn’t present it well. However, as a second-year in the program, you have to do another Colloquium presentation, in front of the same group, but by then you have a bit more knowledge and experience under your belt. My second one was far better.
Over the intervening years (five of them…eeeeesh…), I had quite a few opportunities to brush up on my public speaking skills. I had to present papers in front of our department at SLU – a smaller group (up to 20), yet still including students and professors, still entirely capable of tearing you apart with their questions, making you look like an idiot. Usually, I would over-prepare for these presentations, running through the talk over and over and over again for at least a week prior to its delivery. And normally, the talks would go just fine. Still nervous, though.
Looking back on a life of speaking opportunities, I can come up with a few instances when I wasn’t nervous. One was Boy Scouts. Another was teaching the undergrads at SLU in a non-major biology course we, the graduate students, ran. And, most recently, to graduate students here at Iowa and Pharm.D. students last week.
The common thread that I find in these examples is somewhat cliche, but nonetheless important: confidence. What I found was that, over the years, I was getting better at choosing when it was appropriate for me to speak in front of a group, and usually, it was appropriate when I felt like I knew more about the subject than the other people in the room did. In the case of teaching undergrads at SLU, I was telling them about depressants and other neurological drugs. This wasn’t a problem for me, as I knew deep down that there was no one in that room that knew more about the subject. I would be able to answer any question they threw at me, and if I didn’t know the answer, I could fashion something workable and then get back to them with more details later. Even delivering my dissertation defense to complete the Ph.D., I was talking about the work I had done for 4+ years at SLU, and since I was the one that did the work, I was the most knowledgeable person in the room to talk about it. The professors could ask me any question they wanted: I was in full control.
Which brings us to last week, when I spoke in front of, perhaps, the largest group I’ve ever had to: ~110 students. These were pharmacy students here at the University of Iowa and I was talking to them about biotechnology. Now, I am not well-versed in biotechnology, but it is material I’ve been taught before…years before… Therefore, I was and still am no expert in the subject. However, I still knew, deep down, that I knew more about it than they did, and I was imparting that knowledge to them in the most understandable way I could. As usual, I still practiced the talks for over a week in advance, re-tooled various slides to ensure that they made sense. I delivered the lectures, answered questions, and all the while, I didn’t get nervous.
So it may have taken 25+ years, but I think figured out public speaking. It really doesn’t scare me anymore, at least not to the extent that it used to. I still have to be somewhat choosy about the times where I want to put myself up in front of a group like that to talk about a subject, but at the very least, I think I have a system that I can work with.
Somewhat important if I plan on being a college-level teacher someday…
…when I grow up… :-)