Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Retreat Part I: Speaking out - creakily.

As regular readers may remember, I work with a group of scientists and clinicians from various departments of my institute. Their research encompasses everything from cell culture to clinical trials, and unless I've worked with them on a specific grant application, I often don't have a very firm grasp of what they're up to. So Friday's "first annual" (I love that phrase) research retreat on Vancouver Island was a great opportunity for me to hear about everyone's current projects, and put faces to the names of some of the off-site PIs.

View from the window of my room at the retreat resort.

I also asked the organiser for the opportunity to present one of my current projects to the group, as I'll need input from lots of them if I'm ever going to get it finished. Like everyone else I was allotted 8 minutes and 1 slide.

Not wanting to have to leave the house at 5 am to catch the first ferry, four of us (including my boss) decided to fly to the Island. Given the foggy conditions we called the airline the day before the retreat, and they told us they'd been flying all week, no problem at all. Of course this meant that we took off an hour and a half late, and arrived half way through the session in which three of our party were supposed to present. "Luckily" for me though, I was due to speak at the very end of the day.

As in, last. As in, nothing but me standing between the audience and a lovely evening of dinner and drinks.

Now, I've done a lot of presenting in my time. Not much in high school, but a lot at the undergraduate level. My first few presentations were awful - I always get very nervous, and my lack of experience made things much, much worse. But while I got better and better with practice, I've still never stood up to give any kind of speech without a pounding heart and sweaty palms. My PhD and postdoc years gave me even more experience, including two platform presentations at the huge American Society for Human Genetics meeting. Despite coming close to a panic attack before every single major presentation, I would calm right down as soon as I got halfway through the first slide. I was always given a lot of compliments on my performance, and was told that I looked and sounded supremely confident. I even successfully incorporated a few jokes, and my regular lab meeting and journal club presentations became calmer, almost routine.

When I moved into industry I still had to present once a month or so, to both internal and conference audiences - new product launches, sales reports, marketing campaign metrics, that kind of thing. And at my wedding, my friends and family said it was obvious that I'd had a lot of public speaking experience (the wine helped).

My new job, however, does not give me any opportunities to present. So this was not only the first time presenting to a new group - always guaranteed to make me nervous - but also the first time I'd presented anything to anyone for over 18 months.

Apparently it is not like riding a bicycle.

I sucked.

I mean, I got across almost all the information that I wanted to convey, in more or less the right order. People asked questions and gave suggestions, continuing in the bar later. But I could hear my nerves in my voice for the first time in years, and I didn't even try to use the laser pointer because my hands were shaking too much. No-one said anything about that aspect of the talk, but I was not at all happy with my performance.

Of course, it's different when you're presenting your own research. In those situations you're THE global expert, and reminding myself of that always helped me to control my nerves. This current (unbloggable) project is not my core area of expertise, and is the kind of thing that absolutely anyone can have a strong opinion on that is at least as valid as mine. That and the time slot do provide some mitigating factors.

Still, though. Confident public speaking is a hard-won skill that I'd come to be proud of. I do not want to lose it. So I either need to find some creative way to fit more presentations into my current role (unlikely), or consider other options. Toastmasters, maybe - does anyone have any experience with them?

A few glasses of lovely local wine in the bar helped to take the edge off my disappointment. And dinner was delicious. It was fantastic to spend time with my colleagues outside of work and find out who's into restoring antique furniture, who's writing a book, that kind of thing. We had some really quite hilarious conversations as the wine continued to flow. Turns out that one of the PIs whose grant I helped with in October was second author on the paper I presented at my grad school interview - that made him feel pretty old!

Mr E Man chose to forego the above geekiness (although the furniture restoration / house renovation conversation would have been right up his alley). Instead he caught an early ferry on the Saturday morning to come and whisk me away to a romantic cottage on the Island's Southern coast. More in Part II...

I escaped to my lovely room and its jacuzzi tub at about 11 pm. Here's more of the view, and some more arbutus tree p0rn. This one is very young - does that make me a treedophile?


  1. awww, cath, i'm sorry to hear of your disappointment. i have been to a few toastmasters meetings and they can be very helpful. the only reason i didn't continue is because i am generally comfortable speaking in public anyway, but i think it can be a good way to "stay fresh".

    and i'm sure your'e being hard on yourself - it seems that people in the blogosphere always are!

    enjoy your retreat.

  2. Oh gosh, Cath, I'm sorry you felt your presentation didn't go as well as you would have liked. I bet PhizzleDizzle is right, and that it went better than you think.

    But I, too, am scared of losing my public speaking skills. I was fairly comfortable with presenting lab meeting, journal clubs, and seminars during my postdoc. But it's now been TWO YEARS since I've done public speaking of any kind!! I don't even know I would fare now, if I needed to give a presentation for some reason.

    Like you, I need to find a way to get back into it. Maybe volunteer for one of the journal clubs around here (although it's been so long that I'm now intimidated, and I have to get over it). Could you participate in journal clubs at your own institute?

  3. Dudes! You rock.

    I might have been a wee bit hard on myself, but I'm usually a decent judge of my own performance and I KNOW I could have done better. And would have done better a year or two ago.

    Phizzle, I might look into local Toastmasters meetings and see what's involved. Staying fresh is good...

    Bean-Mom, I'll have to see what journal clubs are available. The department that I'm the most closely associated with doesn't have one, they do an informal "work in progress" chalk talk instead, which none of my projects would fit into in any kind of an interesting way (work currently in progress: editing and proofing a huge grant, updating CVs, not very exciting). But maybe there's one in a different department that would take pity on me and let me join.

    Let me know if you find a way to get back into practice, and how it works out for you!

  4. hm, I think this says some of it "I KNOW I could have done better" and you wrote "I sucked". Not the same thing*.

    I'm not trying to be cheeky but I think you are too hard on yourself. then again, if nothing else maybe this was a good thing? I mean as in "we all need to keep it up and noone gives a good talk if they haven't done it for a long time". I know I was so scared before my first (only so far) big departmental talk this fall. I have been giving smaller talks but nothing this big, and knowing that there were several "more knowlingly" people about immunology (you know, the thing I don't really know) made me cringe.

    I forced my friends to listen to it, twice. Seriously, I have never done that before "since I'm a good speaker" (duh) but it turned out to be very good.

    From what I have heard here, Toastmasters is a good place. Personally I think it might be suffcient for you to just give a talk more regularly. Like someone said, journal club or maybe introduce some kind of "group meeting" with a more "informal larger talk"?

    I'm envious of you going to the island though. Tufino or staying in Victoria?!?!

    *I would have written the same thing... but I am sure you did good but your inner standards might be very high?!

  5. I'm sure you did alot better than you think you did! I second the journal club and even better, I recommend getting involved with a not-for-profit that you really support. Whether it be research related or not, you could do presentations raising awareness/support for them. Its a win/win in that you get to help an organization you care about and you get to practice your skills.

  6. I'm sorry, did I read that correctly? 8 mins and 1 slide?? Shit!

    Glad you got through it all without passing out or throwing up on those in the front row. Public speaking IS like riding a bike - you just have to give it a bit of time to come back to you. And even though I have taught and done a ton of presentations, I still get the pounding heart, sweating palms and cotton mouth each and every single time.

    FWIW: a certain physioprof suggested I try public speaking while drunk ... it's not really my thing, but he swears by it :)

  7. 8 minutes is an awful long time to sit on one slide! As everyone else pointed out, it is likely you are being way too hard on yourself. Obviously people understood you to keep asking you questions!

    And I am so jealous you are in Victoria - I have only been trying to go there for 10 years (and still have been there exactly .zero. times). I hope you enjoy your retreat!

  8. Chall, suck probably is an exaggeration... but to me, not doing my best is as bad as totally sucking!

    The resort was about halfway between Victoria and the Swartz Bay ferries. More photos in next post!

    SM, that is an awesome idea, maybe for Phase II of my speaking rehabilitation plan. (After journal club or toastmasters!) I volunteered for the MS Society and Weekend to End Breast Cancer this year, a good friend works at the MSS so I'll ask her if they need anyone.

    PiT, yep, that's what everyone got - plus a whiteboard and 3 colours of markers. I didn't fill the entire 8 minutes though.

    I'm glad it's not just me who worries about passing out or throwing up! A small drink might help, but I prefer to be at least half a drink behind my senior colleagues (I may have broken that rule on the evening in question, I wasn't paying attention), so the audience would have to be drinking too. See previous comments on wedding speech...

  9. SG, our comments crossed... which confused me greatly... since I got you and SM mixed up! (Profile photos not loading properly today).

    I've always used a minimum of slides and talked around them, so the 8:1 ratio was OK for me. It helped that I didn't have to present any complicated data.

    Victoria's nice enough, but it's not my favourite spot on Vancouver Island by any means. Tofino, Sooke, nice little communities rather than cities... now that's worth getting out of Vancouver for!

  10. I will definitely try to use you as a tour guide when I finally make it up there some day ;)

  11. ahh.. half way there, I think I might know a few nice places there.

    Tufino... in early spring time... a hot tub, view over the ocean and a nice chilled wine/beer.

    Is there anything better? Maybe the walk on the beaches... staring at the cold yet lovely sea.*

    I stayed in a lovely cabin that was like 4 m up in the air :) Absolutely gorgeous view.

    *so, I miss the sea. I have the mississippi outside my window but it is not the same...

  12. SG, sounds like a plan!

    Chall, that sounds like a pretty good description of our weekend!

    I would miss the sea too, having never lived more than 40 minutes drive away, and often much, much closer. On the recent foggy nights we could hear fog horns in the harbour, even though we don't usually feel like we live close to the water!

  13. Love the photos - they are a nice touch. There is a trick to using a laser pointer, not that I have a huge amount of experience with it - but that is to brace the darn thing against the podium in such a way the it doesn't show your nerves. It might take a little practice.

    I don't like giving talks when I can't inspect the details of the place beforehand, to help me feel more comfortable, even if just a little.

    I'm sure a little practice will bring it all back!

  14. Cath - I am sure you weren't as bad as you thought. In fact, nerves can be a good thing: make them work for you, not against you. Whenever I play a gig with a band, I thrive on the adrenalin and the sense of danger. If I find it getting too easy, my mind wanders, and that's when I know I've done badly and that it's probably time to find a new and more challenging project.

  15. Thanks SF!

    I didn't have a podium in this room. I usually kind of circle the pointer beam around the item I'm highlighting (briefly - I'm not one of those presenters who seem to be on the edge of triggering multiple epilepsy attacks in the audience). Better than trying to hold it steady, but I didn't trust myself to even do that on Friday!

    I like to see the set-up too - on this occasion I was in the room all day so I was fully familiar with it, plus I'd seen from the earlier presenters where the best place to stand was etc.

    Henry, good to see you over here! I agree that some nerves are good for perfomance, but the threat of an imminent full-on panic attack (I have had them before, just not while presenting - yet) is something I can live without!


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