04 January 2017

The Zen of Presentations, Part 69: Always be afraid

One of the best treats over this past holiday season was the debut of Trollhunters on Netflix. This animated series, co-created by filmmaker and monster nerd Guillermo del Toro, is fantastic on all counts.

Early on, the lead, Jim, is given some atypical combat advice from his troll mentor, Blinky. In fact, it’s the first fighting rule for a trollhunter.*

Always be afraid. Fear heightens your senses. Fear keeps you alive. Arrogance gets you killed.
Blinky, “Waka Chaka!” (Season 1, Episode 5), Trollhunters

I’m not afraid to give a talk. And that’s currently one of my biggest problems as a presenter: I’ve done presentations too much.

When I first started giving talks at conferences as a grad student, when I got up to the lectern, I was wired. And it was not entirely positive energy arising the excitement of sharing what I had found. No, part of it was nerves because I was afraid.

Fortunately, I was able to take that energy and use it to make the delivery more enthusiastic and animated. A lot of people who have seen me talk have used that word, “energy,” in describing my style. It worked out because I was prepared, I knew what I wanted to say, and knew what my slides were. I was nervous, but not paralyzed by nervousness.

But even as I moved through grad school, and I racked up the presentations about my thesis research, I realized that I wasn’t feeling that rush of nervous energy just before I got ready to deliver my talk.

The problem was not so much arrogance as complacency. You reach a point in developing your writing and presentation skills where you know that you can give a talk without huge preparation, and it will be reasonable. You won’t stink up the room.

Writer Alan Moore put it this way in this interview:

With the America’s Best Comics that I’ve been doing... not even a half-arsed, it’s a quarter arsed idea at best(.) “Yeah, that’ll be good, let’s have some three-eyed cowboys. I’ve got no idea what they’re going to do in the story, but this issue’s all about three-eyed cowboys.” I mean, you might think of a story that’s got three-eyed cowboys in it and hope it comes to some sort of resolution, but it always does.

I’ve been working for 25 years now and I can probably bring near enough any story to a satisfactory resolution just because I’ve been doing this every day for 25 years – you get more confident in your ability to bring a story home.

I knew that energy was important to my presentations, and had been important in reaching the audience when I talked. So I deliberately tried to make myself nervous before talks. Nervousness is a kind of energy, and I had done enough talks that I knew I could harness it and get it under control to get my energy level up where it needed to be.

Always be afraid, even if you have given a talk a hundred times before.

* Unfortunately, Trollhunter rule #1 doesn’t get as much play in the series as rule #3, because rule #3 is funnier (you’ll see).

External links

“Eye protein”: Lessons from giant monster movies

1 comment:

biochem belle said...

My undergrad mentor told me once that he was always at least a little nervous before any lecture he gave–even after 25 years of teaching. For him, *not* being nervous meant trouble, because it would mean he wasn't engaged with the material.