Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Giving Talks at Meetings

**These musing are brought to you by the meeting I have been attending this week somewhere in the woods of northeastern US.**

I am very comfortable teaching. I can move about, gesticulate, draw on the board. I can see the faces of my audience clearly, and can gauge whether something is sinking in or not.

Giving talks at meetings stresses me out a fair bit, as the very act of delivering a talk is very uncomfortable. I don't really suffer from stage fright; instead, I find it's mostly the external constraints that do it for me.

First, you are always at the mercy of the organizers in terms of which computer you use. Luckily, most places nowadays you can use your laptop, but for instance people haven't been able to do that in this meeting. Secondly, the logistics of giving a typical talk is really weird -- the talks are projected onto these giant screens that are great for the audience, but the speaker stands to the side and below the screen and often sees the screen, on which he or she is supposed to point stuff, at a ridiculously low angle. Like this:

O                                          screen

A related issue is not being able to move around. Sometimes you have to  stand near a stationary microphone, as opposed to having a small mike that attaches to your clothes, so you can't really move away from the lectern; luckily, this issue is not very common. I love using the gadget that helps you remotely advance slides, and which would in principle enable you to stand wherever you like and give the talk. However, it may or may not have a very long range (the range tends to scale with price). Also, I sometimes forget to bring mine with me or to put in fresh batteries, or I simply chicken out as I get too nervous about moving around like a crazy person when everyone else stands nicely in one spot and delivers their talks.

I am also not equally comfortable pointing to stuff to my right and to my left. Or certainly not to the stuff behind my back. I remember a  talk I had to give a couple of years ago, which was in this weird room with a couple of very large, nested U-shaped desks, where the audience sat. At the common opening of the U desks was the screen and the speaker literally had the screen behind him/her and could only move perpendicular to the screen, into the U. It was soooo unbelievably awkward. In order not to have your back to the screen while facing the audience, you would have to stand really, really far to the side, where people could not see you and you would be uncomfortably close to the people sitting at the ends of the U's. And this was a high-stakes talk, given to a committee that was supposed to encourage or discourage the continuation of our funding. It remains the most uncomfortable talk of my life. I don't think I did a particularly good job with the talk, and while there were other considerations (such as my collaborators insisting on me practicing in front of them way too many times before the event, which made me pissed with them because of their distrust and just sick and tired of the whole thing), the utter weirdness of the room's layout did not help. We did get the money anyway, which I suppose is what matters after all. 

Lastly, when you give talks at meetings, the audience is typically in relative darkness. You sort of see the faces of the people who are not paying attention to you, as they are being lit by the laptops on which they are working instead. You have much less visibility of those who are actually listening.

Does giving talks at meetings stress you out? Do you care about the meeting room layout or other logistical  aspects? 


Alyssa said...

I find meeting/conference talks much more stressful than the 100s of other presentations/talks I give during the year --- and I think very much for the reasons you mentioned. It's normal/expected that you be stiff, stay in one location, don't use too much intonation in your voice, etc.. So, my typical teachy/outreachy voice and mannerisms don't fit and I tend to feel self-concious about it (even though I know in my head it's better for ALL audiences). Layouts of rooms really annoy me too. Sometimes I'll use the mouse on the computer to point things out if the screen is at a ridiculous angle and I can't talk into the mike at the same time as pointing at something.

studyzone said...

My biggest problem with talks is the questions afterward (or lack thereof). Because of my first-day-of-class strategy, students are comfortable asking questions during class (often, really great ones). After the last talk I gave (my very first one as an independent PI!), I didn't get a. single. question. You could hear crickets. Although someone told me later that my talk was "interesting", I am convinced that I must have given the worst and/or most boring talk on the planet (even though I was really excited about my new research direction). Sigh. At least students are good about giving you immediate (and sometimes painful) feedback.

Anonymous said...

I am fairly comfortable with blowing off convention and wandering around the room as I speak, I find it easier to engage the audience. Sadly, I left my remote on the table at my last conference last week, so I need to replace it ... neither here nor there. I was thwarted recently at a conference slightly outside of my field. I was invited to give a "poster talk" based on my submitted abstract and was very excited to share my work with this group. However, all of the other speakers were glued to the lectern. I decided that I was going to get out from behind the lectern, but the "remote" microphone wasn't a battery-operated wireless mike like I'm used to. Rather, it was a monstrous wired thing that made HORRIBLE static sounds every time I moved at all. So instead of giving an engaging talk in front of the audience I felt like a captive of this horrible microphone that was threatening to shatter everyone's eardrums if I moved a muscle. Aargh!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

"I am also not equally comfortable pointing to stuff to my right as I am to my left."

HA! Yes. Same here.

I had to give a (very short) talk last week to my entire institute at which the speaker / screen set-up was the same as the one in your diagram. I had the slides up on a PC screen in front of me, but couldn't read the text on it as it was too small and pale (NOT MY FAULT - the aim of the presentation was to walk people through a new section of the internal website, and the default website font & colour looked fine on the big screen but were way too faint on the PC, which was a few feet away from me). So I had to crane my neck to read what was on the big screen instead. Not fun - but at least people laughed in both the places they were supposed to, and didn't laugh at any other time :)

DRo said...

"I am also not equally comfortable pointing to stuff to my right as I am to my left."

Me too. Totally throws me off if I am standing on the wrong side.

Anonymous said...

I'm a first year grad student so I'm just starting to give talks. I gave my first guest lecture in a classroom last semester and LOVED it. Then I gave my first conference paper in a department conference last week and found that I was FAR more stressed out having to sit there, read from my paper, and try to maintain an even tone (even as i was telling a dramatic story). And, yes, you are at the mercy of the organizers and the panel chair.

Your first paragraphs were right on the money. You're not alone.