public speaking

Its been more than two months since I wrote, and… holy moly! Its been an amazing two months – incredibly busy and it almost feels like today is the first chance I’ve had to breathe and reflect on what’s been going on.

Of course, I can’t share all of it, but here’s a bit of it….:

  • Finding funding that has allowed me to complete the second year of my MA – both tuition and living costs. In mid-August I was seriously concerned about being able to eat, never mind find tuition fees, and I feared losing all chance of doing the course I love, and the career I so desperately want. That threat has been lifted and the surge of joy and productivity that has come as a result has been amazing.
  • I now have the chance to pull together a PhD proposal and apply for some really important funding. It’s very competitive, but if I get it (and I’m in with a good chance), then I would get not only my tutition fees but a stipend paid for living costs, a pretty generous one as these things go, AND all my communication support costs would be paid by the same organisation. They have a meeting soonish on applying for the funding, for which I’ll need communication support and so far their attitude has been “who do you normally use? okay. fine. leave it with me”. Fantastic! Even the head of the funding has been quick to assure my supervisor-to-be that my deafness will make no difference whatsoever to my application. 🙂
  • Because I’m a part time student, my MA dissertation would not normally be due until January 2017. However, because I’m applying for full-time PhD funding, I need to hand in my MA dissertation early, or I’d be in a position where I’d be doing my MA dissertation and my PhD research at the same time. Now, since they’re on related subjects that’s not as difficult as it might otherwise be, but certainly not a situation I particularly want. So the uni have recommended that I hand in my MA dissertation early. Like, July 2016 instead. errrrrrrrrrrrrrk!
  • As a result of all this I now have three research projects on the go: my PhD proposal, my MA dissertation, and a project for the module that I’m now doing. Keeping all these bits of information in the right place – both in my head and organisationally – is challenging!!
  • I am also engaged in volunteer research, and if that wasn’t enough, have signed up to be a course rep this year for my course. I’m nuts, I know I am.

I am also in the course of delivering various public talks on my subject. Now, as a would-be academic, this is something I have to get used to, but still, the prospect of jumping from a 4 minute long talk (my longest talk before this) to a group of historians that came about as part of my voluntary research, or the 5 minute long talk that I had to do as part of my undergrad degree, to a full hour long talk to the general public, rather than university people and friends was rather daunting. I also knew it had to be done – a key part of the PhD funding that I’m applying for involves Impact and Public Engagement (deliberate emphasis), so you have to get comfortable with working with strangers, and standing up and getting passionate about your subject.

So, when I was asked to deliver this talk to the general public, with tickets being sold for it, I was understandably nervous. Not just for the usual reasons either – would they understand me? would I stumble over words and make an idiot of myself? And then, to make matters worse, some kind person gifted me with a cold the week before I was due to deliver this talk. ARGGH!

In the event the talk went well. I worked with a hearing friend who advised with the words – I had no microphone, and was worried about reaching the back of the room (especially given my cold), but they advised me to focus on enuciation rather than projection, and it worked really well. I also took example from a former tutor of mine, who had no fear of silence – he would happily stand in front of the class, lost in thought, for 30 seconds to a minute, making sure he’d said everything he had to say before moving on. I built silences into my talk, used them to drive a sense of suspense as I told my story. People laughed in the right places. They didn’t elsewhere (i.e. they were laughing with me, not at me). I even worked the rugby into it! I had many… MANY compliments afterwards, and the biggest one of all? I’ve been asked to redeliver the talk, probably next year, at a much larger venue, that can probably hold a hundred people or so. So, bigger advertising. bigger ticket sales. not that I’ll see any of that, but .. having your name plastered around town… oh dear. oh deary me. how’s THAT for nerves?

My supervisor also asked me to deliver a paper at a postgraduate conference, which is coming up in the next few weeks. There’s been some difficulties over communication support for that conference, with my initial request for interpreters being denied. However, this seems to have been sorted out now, and interpreters are booked. Its my first time delivering a paper at a conference, and only my second conference altogether, so there’s a steep learning curve ahead for me. That paper is now largely written so its just practice and tweaking now.

I’ve a third talk to deliver, a few weeks after the conference, at the AGM of a society that deals with my subject, so a fairly prestigious location, and organisation. This is being delivered to a group of people who know a lot about my general subject, although the subject of the talk itself is original, so if anyone is going to pick it to pieces, it’ll be them.

[One thing I do want to note is that although I can’t reveal the specific subject here, I can tell you that all three of these presentations are actually discussing exactly the same research subject. What this means is that I’ve had to re-write each talk to deliver a different emphasis. The general public talk has had to include a lot of background information so that they understand the import of my orginal research. The conference paper has far less in the way of background info, but more in the way of showing the gap in the research, and what my analysis has done to fill it. The final talk, to the society, focuses on the methodology – how they can use my methodology from this research to apply to other research projects, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are. I should add, by the way, that this research project was my undergraduate dissertation, which got a mark of 80 in itself and was commented on as being ‘one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of reading’ by one of the markers. Since my undergraduate dissertation this material has been substantially rewritten multiple times: once for a journal, which was ultimately unsuccessful, mostly because I didn’t anticipate the requirement of writing FOR the journal, of tailoring the material to it; once for another academic journal, which was successful and which won an important prize (being published in January next year); once for the general talk; once for the conference; once for the society talk. It will be rewritten again for the larger venue, and again still for another society talk – a different society to the first one. If all this is teaching me anything, it is about the importance of just that – tailoring material, of knowing your audience, of being able to use the same basic material to deliver different messages, to use your material as a lens to focus on a different part of the project. Yes, the basic material is always the same: what your project was about, your data, your research question, your methodology and your basic conclusions. But within that, you can and should focus on a range of points when discussing the project within different settings, and for me, undergoing this experience bodes well for the future.]

But, back to the talk. When it comes to delivering talks, the convention is that the floor is opened up for questions afterwards. It is these questions that pose some of the nightmares for me – answering a question at some length, to get the reply “that’s very nice, but not what I asked”… or full-on not understanding what the person has asked at all! At the first talk, my friend (who is very lipreadable) relayed the questions to me, and at the conference, I’ll have proper interpreters, but at this last talk, I’m on my own. I’d been thinking about how to handle this kind of situation for some time, because, with the best will in the world, you’re not going to get interpreters for everything, and I had come up with a solution, of sorts, that might work well in an informal setting. I explained the situation to them, my deafness, how it works (or doesn’t work) and gave them two choices. They could either book an interpreter, which would cost, at absolute most, this much, OR… The Solution, which they went for, and will be tried for the first time at that event. My Solution (caps intended) is that, basically, the audience gets pencil and paper at the beginning of the talk, and at the end of it, a box goes around. They write their questions down, and put them in the box, and I pull them out, with a flourish, raffle style, and read out the question, then answer it. It’s got its advantages for several reasons:

  1. its anonymous for the person writing the question. This can be particularly attractive to someone who is a bit more shy, but doesn’t want to stand up to ask a question and have everyone turn to watch them.
  2. done right, it can give a real lift, a bit of fun to the whole proceedings. You can even make it more fun by offering a prize – a box of chocs or a bottle of wine – for the best question! [again, something I learned from one of my tutors who would periodically offer a bottle of red for the best question – HE never had an issue with a silent room after asking a question!]
  3. It rather neatly solves your communication issues in the process.

It has its disadvantages too. You do have to be upfront about your deafness. You also have to have a certain level of confidence yourself, because if you do this in an apologetic manner – ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to…’ – rather than – ‘I’m deaf, but rather than struggle through questions, I want to make it a bit more fun! Can you write the questions down for me, and I’ll pull them out, one at a time? Oh, and the best question gets a prize!’. You can see the difference. Immediately people will respond far better, far more positively to the latter.

However, this confidence is not a bad thing, and it is actually fairly easy to fake. You’ve heard of ‘fake it till you make it’? I watched a really interesting TED talk a while back about faking it till you become it (it has subtitles). Amy Cuddy talks about the importance of power posing, of body language, and of making this work for you to trick your brain into feeling powerful, confident, and strong. I tried it just before the talk I just did, and although I felt extremely silly doing all this posing stuff in the loos beforehand, I actually felt really really good immediately before the talk. No nerves. It undoubtedly helped that I knew my stuff, I had my talk all written out and I knew my material, where I was talking, and who I was talking to, but there is no doubt in my mind that the powerposing absolutely helped too.

So… having done the first of what will be many talks – apart from the ones described above, I have at least two more to deliver, and I doubt they’ll be the last – I feel very confident, happy, and strong. I don’t doubt myself or my ability to do this. And that’s something that is invaluable, going into the next year, and something I’m going to do my utmost to hold onto.

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1 Comment

  1. Natalya D

     /  13/12/2015

    Research councils (if your institution is on the ball) are SO much easier for DSA (and have more money at postgrad) than SFE *spit* who just have no clue about deafness support.

    This post is really interesting cos I too have had to work out ways of handling the deafness in ‘teaching’ style situations and questions. Ironically I’m one of the most willing in my work team to stand up and talk nonsense at people in sessions. I like your questions with a flourish and a prize, I may have to steal this idea.



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