Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nerves & presentations

So I've hit the pre-presentation mild panic stage, since I'm going to be giving my first professional talk at Rocky Mountain GSA on Tuesday.

It's an annoying state that seems to have evolved a bit since I was young. I've played violin for years, and for most of those years I've played solo pieces in recitals. I used to get shaky before a big performance (not a good thing if you're trying to draw a bow smoothly), since if you mess up in a solo piece, everyone (or what seems like everyone) can hear it. When I started giving serious class presentations in college, it was the same thing; I had a bad habit of babbling, and made a lot of little nervous movements when I was talking. (I remember specifically being told not to clutch the podium, or bang the pointer stick on the floor.) I also have a tendency to run on autopilot when I get into the talk; to this day I can't remember much about my undergrad thesis defense, other than one or two of the questions.

When I got to grad school, and had to start teaching labs and giving more in-depth talks, I developed the really annoying habit of sending all my stress straight to my stomach. Now, whenever I give a presentation, I can't eat before, and I'll usually keep myself up at night because my stomach is so upset. (This is not going to go over so well with my talk's early morning time - if I don't eat, I'm likely to keel over from low blood sugar.) What really annoys me about this is that I know - and I've been told - that I'm perfectly competent and actually give pretty good talks. Unfortunately, it's one matter to know something in your head, and another to make the rest of your body believe it.

One thing I have found that seems to help is doing tai chi to calm down - it involves really slow, controlled movements and breathing, which is exactly what I seem to need. (It will look really silly if I do that before the GSA talk, since I'm pretty sure they won't have a meditation room set aside.) I also had some fun with the other volcanology students, who helped me come up with an alert level scale for nerves:

Green - Everything's Cool
Yellow - Mild Panic
Orange - Why Did I Agree To Do This Again?
Red - I Am Totally F*cked

What I really hope is that I'll eventually get over this - or, at least, be able to control it much better. Has anyone else found a point in their career at which nerves are no longer such a big issue? What do you all do to deal with the pre-talk jitters?


Me said...

I wish I knew, and I'll be coming back here to see what your other readers come up with.

I did my first talk at GSA this last October. I was more nervous for that then I've been for anything else.

My masters thesis defense is Monday. I will know everyone in that room, I know they're totally there to support me, and yet...

Garry Hayes said...

Just remember two things:

You know more about your research than ANYONE else...

Your research is by far the most important thing going on (in that room, at that moment)...

It means anyone there wants to hear what you have to say.

A Life Long Scholar said...

Tai Chi (or yoga, or meditation) are all brilliant ways to settle nerves. Don't worry about it looking silly, just find a quiet corner out of the traffic flow and do it. There are likely to be others who feel the same way you do, and would welcome the chance to join you.

sadbix said...

So this probably isn't too helpful, but it might cheer you up.

When I was doing fieldwork last summer, we wound up giving a talk to the locals about what we were doing and why. My supervisor was going to give the talk, and I was driving him to the town hall where we would do it. It was a big land rover so there were quite a few of us in the car, all of us students except my supervisor, and we were all chatting about being nervous before presentations and how best not to be nervous. Eventually my supervisor said, "I used to get really nervous before I gave talks, but now I realize that I know everything anyone could possibly ask me, so I'm never nervous anymore."

Everyone immediately shut up. My supervisor is a really great guy but he is not known for his tact or management skills and perhaps he could sense us all groaning inwardly, so he said, "That doesn't always work, though. Once I was giving a presentation to a group of visiting American students [my supervisor is British] and I was talking about science in archaeology and at the end of the lecture I got only one question, which was 'Who invented soap?' To this day, I have no idea what the answer to that is."

Good luck with your presentation!

BrianR said...

What I've learned over time is that if it seems like you're talking too slow then that is just right ... if you're relaxed and the pacing is right, people will be able to focus on your science better.

Take every opportunity you can to give talks ... the more you do, the more fun they become. I used to dread them and now I enjoy it.

Missti said...

What i heard on friday sounded awesome! Try not to worry too much...drink some oj and do some meditation and you will do great!

Jane Cerza said...

Hey, good luck tomorrow. Eat something sweet, just a little bit, to get you blood sugar up! Remember all the other great comments. You know about your research than you visitors, and they really want to hear you, not heckle you. Tai chi - good.

Geology Happens said...

Congratulations on giving the talk. You will do great and make sure you tell us how it went!