Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge

Image credit: Lava entering the ocean in Hawaii; US Geological Survey

When I was a grad student, and even a young professor, giving talks scared me: standing at the front of a room with my first slide on the screen made me very, very nervous. The result, of course, was that my talks weren’t very good (and I gave them too fast). I’m quite sure my nerves didn’t make me unusual, but I’ve learned since that actually, I had no reason to worry. You don’t either, and I’ll explain why.

There are, I believe, two main reasons why people get nervous giving talks. At least, there were two main reasons for my own nervousness.

My lesser problem was the fear that something would go wrong. The night before my PhD defence, for instance, I dreamed that my slide carousel* was on the ledge outside my locked office window, and I had to go out another window and crawl along the ledge to retrieve it. (In the dream, as you can imagine, this did not end well.) It’s true that if you give enough talks, sooner or later something will go wrong: Powerpoint will mess up a graphic, you’ll trip over a cord, the power will go out, you’ll drop the laser pointer, or even something worse. So? Your audience will understand, you’ll recover as gracefully as you can, and life will go on. Take a few sensible precautions (like an extra copy of your Powerpoint on a USB stick and a whiteboard marker handy just in case) – and know that whatever happens, happens.

My far larger problem (and my real topic today) was the fear that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I’d be caught at it. I thought of my audience as a gauntlet of judges, watching like hawks and hoping I’d say something wrong so they could demolish me. I felt this way because like almost everyone else in science, I sometimes feel that I’m not as smart as those around me, that I don’t work as hard as those around me, and that I know much less that those around me. Here’s what I didn’t understand: I certainly know much less that those around me do collectively. But when it comes to my own work, I know more than anyone else in the world. That sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way: really, it’s just the way science works. My job as a scientist is to figure new things out – and when I do, I know something that nobody else in the world does (which is one reason I have the best job on the entire planet). As a result, when I give a talk I generally know more about my subject than anyone else in the room. That is, you see, why I’m the one up front talking! And my audience is composed of my friends and colleagues, who want to share what I have to tell them**. This is true now, but importantly, it was just as true at the beginning of my career (even though I didn’t realize it). It’s true for you, too.

I’m writing this on Heimaey, in the Westman Islands of Iceland. I’ve just come back from a walk along the sea cliffs, and I’ m sitting not more than ten metres from the edge of the lava flow that, in 1973, expanded the island by two square kilometres***. There’s a metaphor to be had here. As a grad student, I saw myself on the edge of the known land, looking out at the ocean of the unknown; and I thought the cliff edge I was standing on was in danger of crumbling and pitching me into the unforgiving water. I had this half right. As scientists we are indeed standing at the edge of the known, looking outward. But the cliffs aren’t eroding: instead, our work is to extend them, like advancing lava building new land where only ocean was before. Sometimes this is an explosive advance (like Surtsey, or Newton’s Principia Mathematica); more often, it’s a gradual creep. Sometimes the lava cracks, or a bit of it sinks beneath the waves; but another flow follows, and the land is built. I shouldn’t have been afraid to stand at the edge of human knowledge; I should have been proud to show off my role in building that edge outwards. After all, that’s how I came to be standing at the edge: in that direction, I’d built further than anyone else.

So: don’t fear giving talks. When you give a talk, you know more than anyone else in the room. And you’re not working to pass a gauntlet of scrutiny; you’re sharing with your colleagues and friends the hard-won knowledge your work has yielded. Show off your new land, still steaming as it cools, and celebrate what you’ve made.

© Stephen Heard ( July 21, 2015

Related posts:

*^You know, the round thing with the slots that little physical bits of film slotted into so they would drop into the slide projector one by one? Oh, never mind. Just imagine a Neantherthal version of Powerpoint.

**^You’re right, there are a few scientists out there who do treat talks this way – as a chance to catch a speaker out while showing how brilliant they, themselves, are. They’re the ones asking the gotcha questions that set traps for the speaker without actually advancing the discussion. These audience trolls are rare, but one day one may turn up in your audience. Be reassured: everyone in the audience knows what’s going on, and the chill you might sense in the air is for the troll, not for you.

***^It also swallowed about a third of Heimaey town, which is a fascinating story, but one that doesn’t relate to my point about giving talks as well as the expansion of the island does.


19 thoughts on “Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge

  1. jeffollerton

    Great post Steve, with sound advice that we should always keep in mind before a talk. However I do find it (still) hard to convince my brain that I’m the expert when it comes to my own work. At the back of my mind is always the thought that my talk will come across as something else that can be seen “still steaming as it cools”……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Ah, good old imposter syndrome… we all have it. For some reason mine doesn’t kick in until about the day _after_ I give a talk, when I decide retroactively that it was steaming. But I tell myself differently, as we should generally do!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael McCarthy

    Thanks for the post. Some nerves are good, at least for me. They help me focus. I still get nervous, perhaps most of all when giving lectures to students rather than in seminars to my peers. I tell my students to expect to get nervous, and use the nerves to your advantage – it is a question of managing them, not eliminating them. Secondly, the best way to help manage nerves is via practice – don’t shy away from opportunities to talk in public, in fact, seek them out.


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