How to survive a conference talk

Photo by ICSA on

Talking in front of people is not a pleasure. At least it’s not for me. It starts to get better the more often there is opportunity for practice but I wonder if I will ever reach the point of “enjoying it”.

I reminisce about my first ever conference talk, when I was a PhD student and in my second year. I was afraid when I pressed the submit button for the conference abstract after selecting “oral presentation”. I remember a debate with the supervising postdoc, and about me asking if a poster wouldn’t be cool as well, and he constantly re-ensuring that real fame would only come with talks. *sigh*

A few months after hitting submission, I was informed that my abstract was indeed chosen for an oral presentation. This was the second time my heart sank into my boots. Everyone around me said I would be fine and this would be a great chance to show my work, but my confidence had a different opinion. Of course I had given talks before like in front fellow students, but of course it never happened in front of ~100 expert scientists of my field. This was a shock to be honest.

The supervising postdoc and I finally attended the conference. He was great, always asking if I would need anything or would like to practice the talk in front of him. I practiced alone most of the time and I did it until the point I almost knew everything by heart. The morning of the day I had the talk, my anxiety went through the roof. I asked the postdoc if it would be ok to buy some hard liquor to calm myself down and he was fine with it. It was just a tiny bottle but it was helpful in that moment to calm down my anxious stomach (hopefully the conference chairs didn’t smell it). I secretly drank it the restroom of the conference venue and thought this was the beginning of the (my) end. Then we sat in the lecture hall and tried to follow the few talks given before mine was due. Frankly, I couldn’t follow anything, the voice of the previous speakers was just a monotonous “bla”, which I could barely hear due to the noisy heartbeat in my ears. Later the postdoc told me he was afraid I would have collapsed right next to him. I said, I wish I would. When I went to the stage, I was wasted. During the first two slides my voice was actually not there, or at least not close to my usual one. The third slide was a video, which did not work. Then things got fortunately better and I started to relax a bit (thanks to the schnapps?). Anyway, the experience was not a pleasure and I felt like I survived a war. People who saw it said it was fine.

This event is about five years ago. Since then, I had about five or six more conference talks. I still feel the urge to ask for a poster at first, but eventually I choose the talk. I try to convince myself by telling me that real fame only comes with talks and that presenting my work is good for my growth and simply part of my life as a scientist. Lately I even had two talks at the same conference and asked my former postdoc for coming along and have a double shot with me. He was laughing hard but couldn’t make it. This is not to incite students and speakers to become alcoholics and I actually never did that again after the first incidence. What I’d like to say is: even if it’s super bad in the beginning and you really do not like to be on stage or are afraid of it like hell, there is hope for improvement and chance for growth if you go through it despite the fear. One day I will enjoy doing this, I swear!

Photo by Luis Quintero on

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