Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Public Speaking: There’s No Bear, I Swear

Where is my sheet of paper? Where is it, where is it, where is it? WHERE IS MY PAPER?

Frantically, I dump out the contents of my backpack. It has to be here somewhere. Wait, is that it?

I think I glimpse the piece of paper with the dense paragraphs that detail every word I’m going to say in my presentation. I dig through the random objects that fell out.

Yes, it is. Wow, that was a close call. Can’t give that presentation without my script, man. Can’t leave anything to chance.

Now I can start my ritual to get myself mentally prepared for this presentation. Said ritual involves: several rounds of pacing, repeated breathing exercises, drinking water, and avoiding thinking about impending doom.

I feel my heart rate pick up and knees start to shake. Beads of sweat form in my palms. Usually this reaction is reserved for high-risk situations, like running away from a bear in the forest. At least that’s what my biology textbook says.

But there’s no bear here (as far as I know), and we’re definitely not in a forest. I’m pretty sure I’m just in my high school French class, about to give a presentation to a grand total of seven people. So why is my blood plasma currently more adrenaline than water?

--Flash forward two-ish years--

Shannon: “Alright, we’re going dedicate today’s lecture to discussing your project proposals. If you want to – and this is completely voluntary – you and your partner can come up and present your idea, and the class will ask you some questions or give you some feedback.”

Wait, no one told me we were presenting things today… Oh man… I guess “this is completely voluntary.” I don’t have to present. But I want to. All the feedback I could get… But I don’t have anything prepared… But I remember pretty much everything we had come up with… and the feedback could really help.

Shannon: “Who wants to go next?”

What is my hand doing up in the air? Oh no, she saw me. I guess I’m doing this after all. Okay, here goes.

I go up and present. My knees aren’t shaking and I feel only slightly warmer than usual. My heart is beating pretty fast but I don’t feel the pounding in my ears anymore and I’m pretty sure no one can hear the slight shakiness in my voice. I’m talking about our project idea and for a change, I’m thinking about what I’m saying and not the fact that I’m saying it in front of a bunch of people.

And now I get to the questions, my favorite part.


Two years ago, I would’ve never thought I’d have a favorite part about public speaking. Even though I’m currently not (yet) at the point where I’ll give an impromptu presentation without a second thought, I’ve learnt to enjoy the rush that comes with putting yourself out there for people to scrutinize you and your ideas.

How did this happen? I don’t really know, but it was probably something to do with how the procrastinating side of my personality is around 239480356 times stronger than the perfectionist side (+/- measurement error). Especially when my UROP PI expected us to give a weekly presentation on all the work we had done over the week. I didn’t have the time (or energy or dedication or willpower) to write out, word for word, what I was going to say, what with all the more important (aka more fun) things I could do. Besides, the presentations always took only about 10% of the time, and we spent the rest of it answering questions. And I couldn’t write out a script for those…

One particularly pset heavy week, I was feeling pretty adventurous so I decided to wing my presentation. To my surprise, I didn’t forget what I was going to say mid-sentence or start speaking in a foreign language. The presentation was amazingly average and uneventful (notably bear free). And ironically, even though I hadn’t prepared, I was less nervous for this presentation than any presentation I had ever given.

I began to see presenting as more than a torture tool used by authority figures so that they can watch us squirm as they laugh at us inside their heads; I began to see it as a platform to get feedback on ideas. I no longer avoid presentations like cats avoid water because the thing about avoiding public speaking is that yes, people will never see how dumb you are, but you will also never show them how smart you are.

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