Lillian Lee, December 18, 2015
When giving talks, I usually mention how nervous I am, sometimes at the outset, sometimes in the middle when I say something strikingly non-fluent. These talks have often gone very well, so much so that people have — in a perfectly friendly way — suggested that I must be faking the nerves.
I am not faking. I usually get very nervous before talks, sometimes to the point of getting physically ill, occasionally acutely so. Lest some think I'm exaggerating, let me point out that there are three talks I've canceled due to illnesses that I now recognize and/or admit were related to these nerves. CoNLL 2010 was perhaps the most spectacular one, since I managed to force myself all the way to the hotel in Sweden but couldn't make the final trek to the venue. (Honest-to-god, my heart is actually pounding a little right now just recalling these episodes.)
So, it's great that people think that I'm Clark Kent/Superman1: completely aware of and in control of talk-giving superpowers, but hiding behind a meek persona for ulterior reasons. It's great because it's terrific that people often love these talks. But I'm much more Bruce Banner/the Hulk, talk-giving-wise. I can become this powerful (if somewhat out-of-control2) personality on stage, and who doesn't want to Smash! Puny! Related work! But nobody envies Banner the transformation process.
The Banner/Hulk metaphor matches another aspect of my experience, that of “leaving my body” as another pilot takes over. Here's John Lahr3: “In defense against the immobilizing terror, sufferers often split off. They disassociate. They report out-of-body experiences, a sense of watching themselves go by. (“It's a negative ecstasy,” Fry says. “Remember that ‘ecstasy' means ‘to stand outside.' You stand outside yourself.” “[Stephen Fry's stage fright was notorious.]) Or as Sara Solovitch says 4: “My fear was at the controls, like an independent organism emerging from inside me, my own Rosemary's baby.”
Anyway, just because someone seems to be confident doesn't mean that they actually are. And, when someone who seems confident tells you that they aren't, this might not be false modesty, but actually true. For me, I try to be up-front about my nerves because getting the audience to be sympathetic and friendly helps me tamp down the panic. If, instead, I don't get the audience on my side quickly, things go downhill; those who've seen me enter my catatonic-yet-babbling state when a technical glitch occurs have gotten a glimpse of the abyss.
Now, I am not saying that you have to get nervous or worked up in order for a presentation to go well. Rather, I want to emphasize that if you get very nervous before a presentation, you can still knock it out of the park. (Figuratively.) But, some very useful coping advice I've gotten from a Cornell-supplied personal coach5 is: if you aren't naturally good on your feet, then make up for it with extra preparation. For a new talk or lecture, things go best if I write out every line I plan to say by hand, and try to review it the night before and the morning before the talk --- this gives the ol' autopilot a map to use when it kicks in.
Finally, there's also no reason to avoid medical consultation because you're afraid it might mean you're “weak”. That's just letting fear win, and that's definitely weak.
2. SIGDial 2014 attendees may recall my actually falling off the stage.↩
3. “Petrified: The horrors of stage fright”, The New Yorker, 2006. ↩
4. Playing Scared: History and Memoir of Stage Fright (which I cop to not having read; I'm instead cribbing from Joan Acocella's wonderfully titled New Yorker 2015 review, “I can't go on! What's behind stagefright?'') ↩
5. Awesome Cornell perk: this place runs some terrific professional development programs. Check whether your institution offers anything similar! The particular program I'm alluding to was a leadership training workshop for tenured women in the sciences.↩