‘Risking humiliation’: an experiment in public speaking

By Feb.05, 2010

During the holiday period, when the papers and media are full of reflective stories about the year just passed, I came across an interesting account of a journalist’s ‘year of public speaking’ –¬† an experiment to overcome a deep rooted aversion. At the end of 2008, Robert Crampton used his column in The Times to advertise his services as a public speaker. “At the risk of humiliation”, he wrote, “I want to come to talk to your school, business, darts team, whatever. I do not require, nor indeed do I merit, any payment.” The sentiments that motivated this move are, I think, familiar to many:

“Speaking well in public always felt like something I should be good at. I make a nice living from the written word, and among small groups I can handle the spoken word too. But increase the number much beyond half a dozen and I’d founder. Nerves and self-consciousness and a history of failure would take over. I’d dry up, go surly, or platitudinous, or seek recourse in jokes that didn’t quite work.”
(full article in the Times Online)

The account of his year-long experiment provides an entertaining take on the old clich√© about practise making perfect. As he tested out his public speaking in different settings (having to adapt to audiences ranging from a church congregation to prison inmates), Crampton describes a gradual improvement; Q and As become easy, people start to laugh at the right places. By the end of the year, he even detects “the first stirrings of what might just be enjoyment” in the place of sheer anxiety.

Most people cannot avoid public speaking altogether (although, interestingly, the author of the feature had somehow managed to do just that for about 20 years), and for many, it is an integral part of their job. Some people clearly relish it (we can all think of someone or other who seems to enjoy it a bit too much….), but I think that for every one of these suave confident speakers, there are another ten who recoil in fear at the thought of speaking to a large audience (note, these are purely imaginary figures. I’ve just made them up. But that’s OK because this isn’t real research).

Of course, however much we may wish to improve our speaking skills, most of us aren’t in a position to offer our services as a guest speaker (and probably don’t have a store of anecdotes about interviewing celebrities to draw on to entertain an audience in an after dinner speech). But there are loads of opportunities for testing out speaking that are more directly relevant to our work. If you are currently a postgraduate researcher, then conferences (the unavoidable component of any acadmic job) are the most obvious example. You may be perfectly content with working quietly and industriously on your own, and the thought of presenting at conferences can be particularly intimidating (a common avoidance strategy, one I have deployed all too frequently, is to tell yourself that your research is ‘not quite at the right stage yet’).

There are loads of conferences that you could potentially take part in, but I can’t resist plugging SPARC 2010 – the Salford Postgraduate Annual Research Conference, which will be taking place on 10-11 June, and which provides an ideal opportunity to practise presenting your research in a friendly environment (plus it’s free. More on this later – call for papers will be out shortly). There are all sorts of training sessions you can do to help the process, which can provide techniques for preparing and delivering at conferences (we offer some here in Salford, see the ‘Communicating your Research’ section here). Ultimately though, training should be viewed as a useful complement to, rather than a substitute for actually going out and presenting to real audiences, which, as the Crampton article demonstrates, seems to be the most effective way of improving.

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