On giving a professional presentation

August 6th, 2010

The lecture hall at the University of Kiel used for the 2010 meeting of the International Bryozoology Association.

KIEL, GERMANY–There is an exquisite moment as you wait in the darkened hall for your turn to speak. The presenter just before finally says something like, “in conclusion …” Even though you knew this time had to come, your heart speeds up, your vocal cords tighten, and you feel the rush of new adrenaline.

You remember how easy it was to respond to the invitation months ago and submit that abstract. You thought nothing of it for weeks, even after making all the travel arrangements and seeing your name in the program. Then about a week before the talk came a twinge of anxiety — maybe this won’t be as easy as I think? Furious action for a day as you prepare the PowerPoint slides and run through them a few times. Yes, that’s good. With relief you store it on a thumbdrive and feel accomplished.

The meeting starts and you sit through the first set of presentations. Hey, most of these talks are very good! Listening to the questions you realize it is time to up your game. The night before the talk is always when the strongest doubts settle in and you look at your simple set of slides and obsessively begin to add, subtract, redraft, rearrange. The morning of the talk is devoted to nervous pacing and absent-minded mistakes. (Today, for example, I walked a half-hour towards the university and had to go back for my wallet.)

Once your presentation slides are loaded in the computer projection system, a deep calm descends. The die is cast, your fate is set.

Standing on the stage with the microphone in place and the first slide displayed always feels like an out-of-body experience. You hear yourself begin to talk but somehow your consciousness has split free and is running an independent narration. How’s he going to do?, the observer asks. He seems to be going a bit fast there. Steady that laser pointer. There’s a man in the back with a laptop open. Is it raining outside? All the while the speaker speaks on.

Everything is going well enough. No blank pauses, no stumbling with words. Still within the time limit. Almost to the last slide … keep talking …

Fire alarm!

And not just any fire alarm. This is a heavy-duty German version with blaring horns and flashing lights. It is so loud that it silences even the narrator. The audience sits stunned by the noise, waiting for instructions. None can come because no one would hear them. A few people stand up and head to the doors, and soon everyone follows. I take off the microphone and go along. Only one minute left and I would have been fully released!

It was, of course, a false alarm, but it involved two fire engines and their crews. Two hours later we reassembled and I presented the last minute of my paper, which was a bit of an anticlimax. You’re lucky, people told me, for we will all remember your talk — or, rather, that you were the one who was talking.

3 Responses to “On giving a professional presentation”

  1. Meagenon 06 Aug 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Sounds like a real-life nightmare!

  2. Amy Polkinghornon 06 Aug 2010 at 4:33 pm

    How interesting that you stand outside yourself–completely separate and observe.

  3. Matthew Jameson 06 Aug 2010 at 6:54 pm

    So accurate and evocative, right on the money! You’ve captured how all of us feel.

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