Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Reflections of a first-time speaker

As I said in my previous blog post about the New Professionals Conference 2011, I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the speakers. This was my first proper conference presentation; I’d submitted a proposal, had it accepted, had written a paper, and was standing in front of approximately 60 or 70 expectant faces, with a PowerPoint, lectern and microphone. This is quite a difficult post to write, as I have very conflicting feelings about how things went; part of me is absolutely buzzing, and part of me is disappointed in myself. I worked so hard on my paper, and received some great responses from people, but I feel my delivery could have been much better and didn’t do justice to all the work I’d put into it. I am unsure whether I should publish this post, not just because I can’t decide how I feel, but also because I don’t want to come across as fishing for compliments. That is absolutely not the case. I’m supposed to be reflecting on my experience, and reflection is all about being critical and honest, so that’s what I’m doing.
Anyone who has been anywhere near me in real life or on Twitter over the past couple of weeks will have known that I was nervous! Really nervous. I get nervous before teaching or presenting. When I’m teaching, the nerves usually go away quite quickly once I get into it. The same happens when I present to colleagues. But when I’m presenting in an environment where a lot rides on how well I present, i.e. a job interview, the nerves stay with me, and try to infect my voice, my legs, my hands and my brain. So I didn’t have a track record that suggested I would be miraculously OK once I got up on stage! But I thought I might be. I was extremely well-practised. I’d done a final run-through before leaving the hotel room that morning, in front of the mirror, and I was pretty good. I was feeling nervous still, but confident that I could control the nerves. I’m not sure what happened, but this wasn’t the case. I remember how fast I spoke (I speak fast normally and I make a conscious effort to slow down when I’m presenting, but that went out the window). I remember falling over words. I remember trying to make my posture relax in the hope that this would make my brain relax, and I do think this started to work towards the end. As soon as I got off the stage, I wanted to go back up and start all over again and get it right. I was immediately disappointed in myself; I had worked so hard, had some great material, and I felt that I had spoilt it with my nervous, rushed delivery. I also felt that I had spoilt any chance of being asked to speak at other events. Several people have mentioned that speaking at one event like the New Professionals Conference has led to them being asked to speak at others, and, as nervous as I get, I do want to do more speaking, and presenting of my own research. I had hoped that yesterday would be a way in for me, but, to be honest, based on my performance, I wouldn’t ask me to speak at my event!
I’m not sure what I would do next time about the nerves. I rehearsed thoroughly and took Bach’s Rescue Remedy beforehand! I think maybe what might help would be to go and look at the room in advance, stand on the stage, work out how I’m going to hold myself and how I’ll stand in relation to the computer screen and a lectern if there is one, work out whether to hold my cue cards or put them on the lectern. I didn’t do this this time, and I think that might have been a mistake. I went in blind, and didn’t go anywhere near the stage until it was my turn to speak. I think another problem that I had was that I had a lot of material to squeeze into twenty minutes, so I think the presentation was always going to feel a bit rushed, even if I spoke slowly. Next time perhaps I need to be more realistic about what I can achieve in the time available, and adapt my proposal accordingly at an earlier stage.
However, as I said, despite a twinge of disappointment, I am buzzing! Despite my delivery of my paper, I received loads of positive responses to it, both to my face and on Twitter. Attendees appeared interested in what my survey brought up, and were tweeting as I spoke. My discovery that there was a perception of new professionals being a “clique” has sparked some discussion, and at least one blog post on this specific issue. Interest in what I said is still fairly high on Twitter several days later, including amongst those who didn’t attend the conference, which suggests I have made some kind of impact. The evidence-based nature of my paper was praised, and several delegates have told me that they found it relevant to their professional lives. I have been asked if I will be publishing a full written version of my survey results and paper and the answer is yes, I will! I am inspired to carry on writing and doing my own research, and the vague idea that someday in the future I could be a practitioner-researcher is becoming far more concrete and immediate a possibility. One of my objectives in my Chartership PPDP is to publish and to speak at conferences, and I am going to continue submitting paper proposals, both for written work and conference presentations. I intend to get better at speaking; practice makes perfect, after all! I will take the steps I mentioned above to try to minimise the nerves, and I will keep trying. OK, maybe no one is going to come knocking at my door asking me to speak at their event just yet, but that’s fine; I’ll just keep on submitting proposals and seeking out speaking opportunities myself.
I hope this post isn’t too self-indulgent. Perhaps it belongs in my Chartership portfolio as a private reflection. I think I am going to publish it; my suggestions for how to do things better next time might be useful for someone. I am feeling far more positive than negative about it now, and writing it all down has helped with that. Overall, speaking at the New Professionals Conference 2011 was the most amazing, exhilarating experience, and I would encourage anyone who is considering submitting a conference paper proposal for the first time to go ahead and just do it!


  1. I can totally understand you. I feel the same during my presentations. Just wanted to add - your research was really good! And I would like to read it.

  2. Hi Rachel, This is a really interesting post - thank you for sharing! Nowhere near self-indulgent! I was really please to discover evidence eased nature (it is a professional interest of mine) of your presentation as well as 'What is an Information Professional' by Laura and Sam. I think it is really important for all of us to be more evidenced-based, and strive to be at least informally a practitioner-researcher. EBLP all the way! Also, one of my goals for the year was to get published, but the nearest i have gotten so far was a name check in the Guardian...

  3. I felt the same when I had left the stage as well. I always think about what I wish I'd done differently rather than about how it is over or feeling pleased that I did something. The great thing is though that you are able to reflect on the experience, learn from it and know what not to next time.

    I certainly learnt a lot from the expereince and although I wish I could go back and change a million things at least I know for the future. Trying my best to not let the 'I wish I'd done this instead' thoughts take over!

    I really hope that you do publish your research. It was a fascinating topic and from where I was sitting your presentation did it justice. That's the thing about presenting, only you know what you didn't do but could have done and its easy to beat yourself up over mistakes that nobody else noticed. I didn't pick up on your nerves whilst you were presenting, however I was a bit distracted about being up next.

  4. I know just how you feel! I had exactly the same mixed response to my own presentation. I'm usually ok with the nerves once I start speaking but I found it very difficult to present so much information in a short space of time. I wrote a script, cut it down to notes and then mostly ignored it because I don't like to just read (that sounds like a conscious decision but it wasn't at all, I just started talking and then lost my place)! I've been really encouraged that people have said they found what I talked about interesting but I do think I need to be more confident about how my delivery will work next time so I can concentrate on talking clearly and not worry about notes/script etc. I also usually consciously slow myself down but I don't think this happened!

    What I would say about yours is that although you felt nervous I don't think it was that obvious. I've watched a lot of people present and if you know somebody well then you can see the subtle differences that suggest they are anxious. However, watching someone you don't know so well I rarely notice this! I think you came across a knowledgeable and clear and I had no idea you felt as nervous as you described.

    I did a course at work last year about presenting and one of the best things I took away from it is that we are own worst critics. Other people in the group seemed just as anxious as me but when they got up and spoke every single one of them came across well. I find presentations never go exactly how I had hoped but I try to remember how good I thought those people were, and how awful they thought they were!

    I think the more we make ourselves present, the better we will get in terms of speed/volume/words etc. as the nerves will lessen a bit, but I would be surprised if anybody came away from Monday thinking you weren't a good presenter.

  5. Thank you so much for your thoughts and comments and kind words, everyone. I'm feeling much more positive about it as time goes on. I think we all did pretty bloody well considering it was our first ever time as conference speakers!

  6. I agree with Megan that your nerves didn't come across to the audience! (And them same goes for all the speakers - they all did a fantastic job)

    I think as it's a conference for and by New Professionals no one is expecting you to be an amazingly polished speaker, and actually if someone was word perfect and dazzlingly confident I think it would put everyone else off from having a go the year after!