Guest blogger Lorna Wallace shares her experience of a certain difficult audience member…
For a lot of PhD researchers, presenting at conferences is one of the most intimidating things to do and understandably so. Presenting your own ideas to a crowd of experts is a daunting prospect for anyone, but doubly so when you already struggle with public speaking (as I do!). I was given a variety of tips to prepare, with the most common one being to imagine the audience naked (has anyone actually done this? Let me know if it works!). But the second most common thing I was told was that it would be fine and while this was reassuring at the time, unfortunately for me at one of my conferences last summer it was not fine.
I was at my first big conference, suddenly thrown in with a number of eminent scholars in my area. Having spent the whole day a ball of nervous energy I finally presented my 20 minute paper and sat down, thankful that after just a few questions I would be free to go. Sadly I was not asked a thoughtful and inquisitive question; instead the most established academic in the room took the chance to tear my paper apart (and by extension my entire thesis). I argued my case but after some back and forth it was evident that he would not be swayed, instead choosing to glare at me across folded arms in the front row as people in the audience jumped in to defend me.
I felt completely shaken. Was my paper really that bad? Was I totally out of my depth? Was I over reacting to being criticized? People came up to me afterwards to offer their support, confirming that he had been unnecessarily cruel. I felt reassured that I wasn’t over reacting but my sadness turned to anger. Why hadn’t the panel chair mediated the interaction? Why did this senior academic think it appropriate to berate me so publicly rather than speak to me privately afterwards?
My situation was a rare one, but it is one which sometimes happens in academia and being told “it’ll be fine” isn’t helpful. It’s better to tell yourself it’ll probably be fine but then prepare for it going wrong. So here’s my advice.
1. Think about your own personal worst case scenario and plan a solution.
The overhead projector fails? Prep some handouts. People in the audience start chatting? Be bold enough to call them out. You forgot the script for your paper? Have a copy on your phone. Someone asks a hostile question? Defend your paper and try not to take it personally. Covid-19 means the conference is on Zoom? Make sure you’re comfortable with the technology. There really is an answer for almost everything, so make sure you’ve thought of it beforehand.
2. Have a reward in mind as motivation to get you through.
I knew I wouldn’t be up for the conference dinner so instead I had celebration cupcakes with my boyfriend, although at the time they felt like commiseration cupcakes! Every time I felt myself getting anxious throughout the day (which was essentially all the time), I reminded myself that there’d be a treat at the end of it. Even if that treat is something as small as eating your favourite chocolate or buying a book to add to your TBR pile, it’ll help pull you through.
3. Tell yourself that no matter what by the end of that day you’ll be done with it.
No matter what happens with the paper, it will eventually be over. It’s easy to fixate on how awful it’s going to be, but instead try to focus on how good you’re going to feel once you’ve done it. Even if you don’t feel proud of how you performed (but you should feel proud because it’s a massive achievement!), at least you’ll be free from the anxiety it’s been causing.
And remember, if an unkind academic attacks your ideas it probably says a lot more about them than it does about you.
About the Author
Lorna Wallace is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Stirling. Her doctoral research re-evaluates notions of duty in early modern history plays against humanist and classical ideals. She is particularly interested in the differences and similarities between histories written for the academic stage and those written for the professional stage.