Monday, August 30, 2010

Public Speaking

Part of my job entails giving public presentations of my work. Conferences, workshops, seminars, colloquia, group meetings. Over the years I have learned to get over my fears of public speaking and to actually enjoy these opportunities to discuss and share my work with others. However, public speaking is generally recognized as the number one fear of a good fraction of the population. Being comfortable up in front of an audience, I have found, is a process that takes some time to master. It takes lots of practice. Of course, some folks take to being up in front of a crowd and being the center of attention quite naturally. It becomes the place where they shine, where they are in their comfort zone. Others, alas, even after many years of practice, still fall apart when in this type of situation.

Over the years, I have witnessed some very obvious examples of what not to do in public presentations. Some examples are from single, specific individuals, and others are just nervous traits that emerge in general. I thought I would share a few that came to my mind:
  • During an interview talk, the candidate was given a clear plastic pointer stick. He was so shaky and nervous that he set up oscillations in the stick. The amusing shadows projected on the viewing screen caused the audience to giggle throughout the entire presentation.
  • Many times I have seen an audience develop vertigo from a laser pointer in the hands of a nervous speaker. The beam of light just bounces in an uncontrolled manner all over the room.
  • A young speaker in a conference was interrupted by a fire alarm during her talk. After exiting the building and reassembling in the meeting room, the session chairman told her to continue from where she left off. She responded through heavy tears, "I only know it from the beginning."
  • A friend of mine uncontrollably displays his nervous energy in front of a crowd by grabbing his crotch violently. He is unaware of this behavior to this day.
  • Lots of nervous folks incessantly clear their throats. I have seen some do this uncontrollably every 15 to 20 seconds for an hour straight. Talking to them in normal situations, they never even once clear their throats.
  • I have seen several speakers who will snork up snot from the depths of their bowels in front of an audience. With the microphones amplifying every ounce of phlegmy goodness being pulled out from their bodies with the subsequent swallowing. Yeah, gross beyond words.
  • Some folks burn off nervous energy by wildly pacing back and forth across the room or the stage. I get tired just watching them.
  • Back in the days before Powerpoint and electronic presentations, we used to make our slides on transparencies or sheets of plastic. For an hour-long presentation, this would require probably about 40 or 50 slides. During the start of an interview talk, a nervous candidate was fumbling so wildly that he knocked his stack of transparencies on the floor. Picture flinging a deck of cards up in the air. There was no way to recover from this one.
  • More folks than I can remember develop the flop sweats in public venues. Buckets of perspiration just pour off their bodies and at the end of their talk, their clothes are drenched.
  • I witnessed a frail woman, who could not have weighed more than 60 or 70 lbs, try to give a talk at a conference that I went to. When the session chairman put the microphone around her neck, the weight of the device pulled her head down so that she was staring at the floor. This forced her mouth right onto the microphone. I had to spend the next 30 minutes listening to a cross between the Peanuts teacher and Darth Vader, listening to her gasp and wheeze with each breath. Quite painful.
Hopefully, I will not do something in my nervousness to make my own list. Time will tell. The secret is always to prepare fully, to give one or two practice talks to yourself out loud, and always, remember to breathe.