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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

The Public’s Biggest Fear by Anna H. '14

...is no longer one of mine.

My earliest memory of making a presentation consists of saying nothing at all. It was fifth grade science class. Each student had to design and present a new kind of medicine. I have no recollection what my medicine was supposed to do, but I remember that I put it in one of those yellow Johnson’s baby shampoo bottles. I spent hours decorating that label, with a pencil and markers and tape and scissors – it was a masterpiece. I proudly brought it to school, got up in front of the class, and spent thirty seconds gripping the bottle over my face and staring down at my shoes, mumbling. At least, I think I mumbled, but all my classmates wrote “I couldn’t hear anything you said” on their feedback forms, so I guess it’s possible that I got up and didn’t say anything at all.

Elsewhere in the spacetime continuum, approximately nine years and 3760 miles away, a version of myself that the shy little fifth grader wouldn’t have recognized walked into the McCormick Observatory in Charlottesville, VA, for their first public night of the summer. I had arrived from Boston a couple of weeks earlier, to do research on pulsars at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I was startled to see one of the graduate students in my group there – he had been asked by the observatory (through the University of Virginia) to give a talk on his pulsar research.

The fifth grader clutching the baby shampoo bottle would have loved to listen to the talk. She would have sat near the front, with her parents, excited but absolutely silent. This rising junior at MIT wouldn’t be happy until she was giving the talk. I walked up to the grad student after he finished, to find out who I could get in touch with to make this happen. He had no information, though, beyond a first name: Ricky.

Ricky. I had to find Ricky if I wanted to give a talk at the next McCormick Observatory Public Night. Too bad that there were over a hundred and fifty people packed both inside and outside the building, milling and talking and sweating in the mid-June Virginia heat wave.

At around 10, my friends and I decided to head home. We felt our way outside, in the dark, and had just found space to breathe when I was seized by the sudden urge to sacrifice a chunk of my dignity to gain an opportunity. I yelled “RICKY!” as loudly as I could.

The crowd went quiet; ears pricked up. I think that the only reasons my friends didn’t flee my presence then and there was (1) shock and (2) shock.

Oh well. I had already gotten myself into this. I yelled again. “IS ANYONE HERE NAMED RICKY?”

This time, silence, before the faintest “…I am.”

Did that really just happen?

I scurried over to the voice, friends in tow, and introduced myself. Yes, he said, he was Ricky, the UVA astronomy professor who helped coordinate the observatory’s public outreach program. Yes, he knew of the NRAO Summer Student Program. Yes, I could make a presentation at the next open night. Yes, I could bring along my fellow summer student researchers. I thanked him, and almost skipped to the car, I was so thrilled. My friends were silent, before one of the finally said “I can’t believe you just did that.”

According to the Internet, the American public’s #1 fear is of public speaking. I couldn’t find an official survey to back this statistic up, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable, since I think it’s safe to say that there are few things less appealing than humiliating oneself in front of an audience. The question, then, is how a cripplingly shy fifth grader grows up to boldly ask an astronomy professor for permission to deliver a 20-minute public talk on pulsar research.

In my case, there were four major fears to get over – and a lot of practice to do.

Deep Fear #1: Blanking Out

You know the fear I’m talking about. You get up on stage, head filled with plans and words and creative jokes – you take one look at the audience, and that’s it. Blank. Nothing to say. You stare at them and they laugh and you run away and make a home for yourself in a bathroom stall.

Dealing with it: You Won’t Blank Out, but if you’re really worried, bring a notecard.

I use the same procedure to prepare for all of my talks / classes. First, do the research. Make a page of notes. Print said pages of notes. Then, take notes on your notes. Take notes on your notes on your notes. Read some more about the subject, for (1) fun, (2) consolidation, (3) additional information in case people ask you questions. If you’re using a PowerPoint, make the slides. As you make them, begin talking to yourself, experimenting with sentences and opening lines and how you’re going to explain each concept. Reorganize your notes to match your slides. Read some more about your topic, for (1) (2) and (3). Make new notes on your notes. Basically, become totally familiar with your notes, by interacting with them. Then, get up and practice the presentation. Out loud (it’s really important that you do it out loud) so that you’re forced to put your thoughts into words. Take a break to eat ice cream. Then run through your presentation again. Break. Runthrough. Break. Runthrough. Over and over again, preferably over a couple of days. If you’re going to write on a board, practice writing on the board and figuring out where you’re going to put everything and whether it’s all going to fit. Do it at least once or twice, because human stupidity climbs to infinity with proximity to boards.

If you practice, you will not blank out. You just won’t, because you’ll get on stage and neuroscience will save you. Your brain – in which you have put  all these sentences and all this information – will punch your nervousness in the face and take over.

I personally believe – and some people will disagree – that you should never write out every word of your presentation and commit it to memory. This is for a couple of reasons. First, you tend to write differently from how you would speak, and it’s really obvious when you talk that you’re reading something you wrote and memorized. It sounds artificial. Second, if you suddenly forget the exact word you put in there, you panic, because all you know is what you memorized. If you learn the general content without deciding that you have to say it a certain way, there is a lot less to forget.

All that said, the idea of blanking out completely makes me so nervous that I bring notecards to every single class that I teach. I stick them in my back pocket, and never use them. It helps me tremendously, though, to know that if worse came to worst, I could take a peek. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Deep Fear #2: People won’t enjoy my talk.

Your talk will be boring, and people will start walking out or snoring or shuffling around or, worst of all, pull out their phones and start texting or Twittering “WOW, THIS TALK SUCKS!”

Dealing with it: Enjoy your talk.

Most of the talks I give are on topics in science. Now, like any talk, a science talk could be incredibly boring (I think that this would be a crime, considering how inherently interesting all of science is.) Alternatively, it could inspire a room to learn more about science, or even become scientists. It’s the speaker’s job, in my opinion, to be interesting – not the audience’s job to be interested. To be polite, they just have to be quiet and keep their phones in their backpacks and look in your general direction. You must know the audience, know what level of information they can or cannot access, find a way to make what you’re saying relevant to their lives. Engage them. Ask them questions. FORCE THEM TO ASK YOU QUESTIONS. I try to start every talk by laying out a ground rule: if someone gets lost, they let me know and ask for clarification. No Audience Member Left Behind.

Most importantly: BE ENERGETIC! Gesticulate. It’s okay to embarrass yourself. If you sound like you’re bored, the audience will be bored. After all, you’re the expert on this topic – if it doesn’t excite you, why should it excite them?

Deep Fear #3: I’ll make a mistake. 

You’ll say something that’s incorrect, and a member of the audience will call you out on it. You’ll stumble. You’ll blank out for a couple of seconds before recovering. PowerPoint will freeze. Maybe you blank out every sentence, and have to check your notecard over and over again. OH NO! you think. THE WORLD WILL REMEMBER THIS FOREVER! I’M FINISHED!

Dealing with it: It’s not a big deal.

It’s not that big of a deal. The trauma may stay with you, but I guarantee that other people won’t care that much. Yeah, maybe they’ll think your presentation wasn’t great. They’ll realize you made a mistake. To be honest, they’ll probably sympathize, since everyone knows how scary speaking in public can be. But they’ll forget about it soon enough. Also, THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE PLANET did not see you mess up, unless you’re the president or something, in which case you have lots of other issues to worry about anyway. You can still walk down the street with your head high, even though it feels like surely the entire world knows by now and your reputation is ruined for all eternity and you probably will never be able to get married. Don’t be silly. What would be really embarrassing is if you let that experience turn you away from public speaking forever. If you mess up, curl up into a ball on the floor if you need to, but then get up and do it again.

Deep Fear #4: I’m still terrified, and it’ll show. 

I’ll shiver, my voice will break, my knees will shake, I’ll braid and unbraid my hair, I’ll bite my fingernails, I’ll speak really quickly…

Dealing with it: Embrace it.

Nothing wrong with being nervous. Channel it into being extra excited. Instead of fidgeting, run around the front of the room. Walk into the audience. Gesticulate wildly. To be honest, I still get terrified every single time I have to make a presentation, but at this point I’ve learned to turn the “I would rather be anywhere but here” terror into extra energy.

As an added note: you’re speaking faster than you think you are. Slow down.

I can give you advice, but the truth is that you won’t get better until you’ve given a bunch of presentations. I gave a lot of presentations during High School. In Comparative Cultures class, freshman year, my teacher made each of us give a presentations every couple of weeks. She sat at the very front of the room, taking notes, sometimes smiling and nodding, often frowning, always peppering the speaker with questions to see how carefully he or she had been during the research process. It was without a doubt one of the most frightening things I’ve ever had to do, but I had to do it so many times that it felt routine by the end of the year. A year later, I was giving presentations to companies with my Robotics team’s sponsorship group. I looked panels of businessmen and board members of my school dead in the eye, and told them why they should give us money. I shelved my shyness because this was something I cared strongly about. By the time I got to college, I loved making presentations, and this is without a doubt one of the most useful skills I could possibly have brought to MIT with me. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t very good at telling people what they do. They’re shy, and/or they’re out of touch with how to communicate with the layperson, which is a terrible tragedy because they do interesting work and the world would benefit from hearing about it. Also, for entirely practical reasons, it is so important to know how to communicate why what you do is awesome. I learned this on my FIRST Robotics sponsorship team, when I realized that we would not have the money to build a robot unless we could convince non-engineers why they should support an engineering program. 

If you think you stink at speaking publicly, put yourself in a situation where you have to. Start small, if you want. But start nonetheless, because then you can start getting better. Then go share your interests and hobbies with others – there are audiences out there, including me, waiting to learn from you.

On Friday, I gave my talk on pulsars to a room full of strangers and their families. At the end, a man intercepted me in the doorway and said “thank you – I didn’t realize that I would learn so much at this public night. You’re a great speaker.” I’ve come a long way from “I couldn’t hear anything you said.”