Julian Simioni

The Many Terrors of Giving Talks

A few weeks ago, I was given some terrible news: my talk proposal had been accepted.

It might seem strange that being granted something I had asked for would be terrible, but given my reaction to the news, it’s the only logical conclusion.

Here’s a short sampling of the things that went through my head: * What if my talk is boring and no one likes it? * What if no one understands what I’m talking about? * What if nothing I say is new at all? * What if I completely fail to prepare? * What if I have a great talk, but poor presentation? * What if I make a bad joke while on stage? * What if I say something that offends a whole group of people and the entire internet disowns me? * What if someone asks a question I can’t answer and makes me look stupid?

Judging by what most other people have written about giving talks, this is par for the course. Public speaking is universally terrifying, causes enormous stress, and take up countless hours of time in preparation. Why then, does anyone bother?

Because there’s nothing better than overcoming new challenges, and talks are full of them.

Giving a talk requires knowing something well enough to teach it to others. It takes hours of preparation, far beyond that which is required just to be proficient. And you can’t just know fragmented pieces: your knowledge has to be complete and orderly so that you can actually teach others.

Giving a talk (for most people) requires stepping well outside your comfort zone. It requires learning new skills that you can, should, but probably don’t use on a daily basis. Stepping into new things requires accepting a lot of mistakes will be made, and requires the confidence and perseverance to continue despite those mistakes. When giving a talk, all your mistakes happen in public, which is particularly unsettling.

Giving a talk requires great delivery. In a lot of ways, what you say is as important as how you say it.

Giving a talk requires a lot of work. More importantly, giving a talk requires a lot of work with a hard deadline. You have to spend many hours preparing, but you can’t spend an infinite amount of time. You can’t practice your talk until it’s perfect. At some point, it’s the day of your talk and you’re as ready as you can be. The trick then, is to prepare efficiently with the limited amount of time you have1.

I’m learning a lot preparing for my talk. I know I’ll learn a lot more by actually presenting. And overall, the process has been, and will continue to be a lot of fun. All this motivates me to work on my talk, but I have to admit, there’s one thing that motivates me most of all: to be done with my talk.

  1. If you think the time between your proposal’s acceptance and the conference is anything but limited, just wait.