Be yourself, not an imposter: on conferences and public-speaking

Early-Career Plenary Panel at the RGS-IBG 2014

Early-Career Plenary Panel at the RGS-IBG 2014

Risk is both motivating and paralyzing. On the one hand taking risks can move us forward as researchers, advancing our knowledge of the world. On the other hand the before, after and moment of risk-taking can stop us in our tracks, unable to move, respond or get on with life. I’ve experienced both of these feelings of risk in the last few years. It’s not easy to talk about but once researchers do start talking about it we find there is plenty we have in common. This post has been inspired by the amazing talks I’ve seen this week at the inaugural Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose.

I’m a lecturer. I find that I am now so occupied with a mixture of research, teaching and administration that some of the risks I agonised over when I was doing my PhD and as a postdoc, such as standing up in front of an audience and giving a presentation, no longer feature on the horizon in the same way. Last year I had to lecture for 2 hours each week. At first I was anxious, of course, I was. But as the weeks passed and my students continued to show up, I saw those nerves and the risk of failure diminish.

Public-speaking is a central part of academic life. Nobody told me this. You don’t get a handbook on day one of your postgraduate life that says, being an academic involves x, y, z. Instead, you learn by doing. Making mistakes. Taking risks. Picking yourself up. We need to prepare our students for the element of public-speaking (the same goes for writing too but that is for another blog post). We cannot expect academics to be effective communicators, if we do not spend time during undergraduate degrees and as postgraduates cultivating the ways in which we communicate our ideas and research. Indeed as researchers we need to continually evolve our ability to communicate.

When I talk about the risk of public-speaking, I am referring first to the element of standing up in front of students, colleagues, peers, even strangers, to share ideas, knowledge and, importantly, our enthusiasm for the subject. I am also talking about publicly communicating in a friendly and conversational manner via other media such as blogs and Twitter.[1]

First, there is the risky decision to communicate our work – to submit an abstract to a conference, to organize a conference session, to draft our conference paper, presentation or poster, to share this draft with colleagues, peers and supervisors for feedback, to finalise the draft – usually cutting down the word count.

Second, the conference date arrives, we sit patiently as we await our turn to speak. Self-doubt creeps in. I don’t think I should’ve submitted this paper. I wish I had time to alter it. Usually at this point, I get a knot in my stomach. I am waiting for my turn to talk and I feel sick.

Third, I am behind the lectern or holding my papers. I remember one particularly nerve-wracking occasion where my hands were shaking so much that the clicker to move the slides on was doing this as my hands moved. It didn’t help that I was in a drama studio standing in the middle of the room – all lights on me. I felt completely out of my depth. These days I realize that preparation is key. Knowing what you want to say and how. Avoiding papers if I can. Instead working through ideas and trying to identify how I want the audience to feel once they’ve heard me speak.

Finally, the nerves have passed. There is the applause. There is time for questions. Honesty is the best policy. If you get a tough question and can’t figure out how to approach it. Why risk it? Explain that you need to reflect on that some more. The same goes for the risk of asking a question – I’ve lost count of the numbers of times that I didn’t ask a question at a conference or seminar in the last 10 years. And how many times I regretted it or sat in awe of colleagues who would pluck a fully-formed question as if from nowhere. And then a few months ago as part of a teaching course, our teacher informed us that formulating questions isn’t an easy activity. It takes time. We can’t expect our students to have a question immediately. Phew!

For me, public-speaking will always involve a certain element of risk – an emotional and personal risk. The knot in my stomach. I used to think these feelings were bad. I’d avoid any occasion to speak in public, even in small meetings. I wouldn’t risk it. I hated how it made me feel. But then – I said, enough is enough. I decided to take some control. Through my university I found a presentational skills course. It wasn’t run in-house by the university, but was led by professional actors and communicators for people in industry and leadership to ‘present with presence’. The course was in central London. I had to be there early. I felt both excited and nervous about the course. I arrived at the building.

The offices were up a flight of stairs. I met our course leader and my two fellow students. One worked in sales for a large builders merchants, the other was the people manager for a 5* Mayfair hotel. And there was me – a postdoc researching enthusiasm. We had to present for 5 minutes on our work. I held cards. I spoke too fast. I didn’t get anywhere near the point. We were filmed. We were given feedback from the group. We reviewed our own performance. We developed a number of presentations across the two days. On the second day, I returned. We had to give another short presentation. I lost it. I broke down in front of the group. I was crying, really crying. And it was a relief. I cared about doing a good job so much that the thing I failed to do, possibly ever, was be myself.

Being ourselves is the very best thing we can do.

How can we ever expect to feel comfortable or do our best if we are not being ourselves.

The group were a bit shocked by my outburst. They also couldn’t believe what I did next. I got up and did my presentation again. This time as myself, not the researcher I thought they expected me to be. I got a round of applause and feedback that stayed with me for years to come.

I have taken a risk telling you all of this. I hope some of it resonates with readers.

Being yourself seems like the most obvious and simple thing in the world. But it isn’t always that easy. The risk of being oneself, of showing the academic world the real you has been much discussed in blogs, on Twitter – the imposter syndrome is what they call it. (I blogged a bit about it last week.) The feeling that you might eventually be found out, that you aren’t supposed to be here. So we hide away. Or we portion bits of us away to avoid being discovered. But the risk of doing this can be anxiety, stress, depression. I know this from personal experience. From beating yourself up that: you haven’t read everything – well you can’t possibly read everything; you aren’t intelligent enough – well you clearly are, you’ve done a masters and PhD; you don’t spend all your time fixated on some theoretical idea – well neither does most of the rest of the world.

Imposter syndrome affects researchers regardless of age or gender.[2] It is a term that I have become familiar with as I progress in my career. Feeling there are things that I can’t do, but actually upon reflection, why can’t I do them? Well, because I’m often not being myself, following what I believe to be the right thing for me.

In April this year I was invited by the postgraduate geography community to open their mid-term conference. I shared with them the image of two concentric circles one showing ‘where you are’ the other ‘where the magic happens’. We need to get out of our comfort zones, be ourselves and take risks.

Creating the space to talk about the people behind the research or conference paper is risky, but the price is too high not to. What better way to learn to take risks than from each other.

[1] Athene Donald on why women should blog.

[2] Athene Donald on the imposter syndrome.

2 thoughts on “Be yourself, not an imposter: on conferences and public-speaking

  1. I could write a very considered, thoughtful response or I could just be myself and say, that was brilliant. Thank you.

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