Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nervous Habits

I often have the opportunity to observe people in situations in which they are very nervous. The venue is in colloquia, seminars, and other talks where they are forced to stand up in front of a group of people and give a coherent presentation of their work. I have come across a number of surveys over the years in which the number one fear of folks is speaking in public. In fact, speaking in public tends to come in ahead of the fear of death, the fear of Mel Gibson, and the fear of ice cream headaches. Need I say more? I have a number of nervous habits that I display from time to time, depending on the situation. One is that I take my glasses off for no apparent reason. Sometimes when I do this, I swirl them around in rapid circles. Why, I am not sure. Perhaps, like other releases, I am just trying to burn off that excess nervous edginess. Other folks I have seen melt down completely. I have witnessed speakers who lose their voice, ooze sweat in buckets, and faint. Others shake so hard that they give the audience vertigo with the motions of their laser pointer - the beam of light is left dancing haphazardly all over the viewing screen, aimed at nothing in particular.

I have a very good friend of mine who displays his nervous energy in quite a different fashion. He's very smart and gives very clear and well thought out presentations. If you closed your eyes and just listened to his words, you would think that he was in total command at all times. However, he still has a bit of nervous energy, like most folks speaking in front of people. My friend doesn't sweat, doesn't shake, doesn't faint. He directs his nervousness in two alternate directions. First he sticks his arm down the back of his shirt collar and scratches his back, and then for the coup de grace, he vigorously grabs his privates. He does this in full view of his audience, and I am quite sure that he does not even realize that he is doing this. I have even told colleagues about this before his talks, alerted them to look out for the old scratch-grab combo. They initially think that I am crazy, that I am making this whole thing up. Then when it inevitably happens two or three or ten times during his presentations, they realize that I speak the truth.

When I was a young university professor, it was suggested to me to improve my style that I videotape one or two of my lectures. In viewing myself, I could see how I was perceived by my audience. Was I clear in my speaking? Was I clear in my board work? Did I continually grab my crotch or thrust my arm violently into my shirt? I never followed through on doing this, so I guess it is possible that I do this and more whenever I get up in a public speaking situation. If so, please, be gentle with me.