For weeks, Grace has been preparing for her animal research project, which is the culmination of the second grade curriculum. Out in the garage, with the door open, she constructed over many days a diorama that featured the elephant seals’ habitat. In the basement, on the kids’ computer, she searched Google for “elephant seals” to find what she called “quick facts.” (They are carnivores and eat skates, small sharks, and other fish, by the way.) She talked about an upcoming “oral presentation,” yet the design and rehearsal of that happened entirely at school.
On Friday, we went to school, sat in the back of the classroom, and watched Grace and her classmates, one by one, give their presentations. The room was arranged like an auditorium, with a table as podium at the front and the desk chairs arranged in rows. There was a microphone, into which each child spoke as s/he read aloud her prepared remarks. After the formal presentation, each speaker asked, “Any questions or comments?,” and then called on raised hands. Remarkably, what happened during the Q&A is what happens during the Q&A of presentations made by many adults: The speaker relaxed, smiled, and seemed more natural and engaged.
Children have less polish and guile than we do, so there’s something very raw about the behavioral “data” they present for our scrutiny. In this instance, the eight-year-old presenters gave me an opportunity to wonder this: Why does even a practiced, rehearsed professional speaker seem stiffer, less natural, than the same person during the Q&A?
I have always been skeptical of that claim that Americans fear public speaking more than any other fear, even fear of death. This source points to a 1973 survey by the Sunday Times of London that initiated that now wildly-held belief. Of 3,000 respondents, 41% listed public speaking as their number one fear. Hmm. About 1,200 Americans — many of whom might be dead by now — have got a lock on our fears. I, for one, do not fear public speaking over fear of death, or the death of anyone I love, or my fear of woodchippers. Let’s put this survey, and its outdated data, aside and actually examine this fear. Whether it ranks first or tenth, it’s still real.
I’ll admit that I feel apprehensive when I have to make an oral presentation. And I’m not shy; I don’t mind talking to people. I don’t even mind standing in front of room full of students and teaching them (which is different from presenting). As Jimmy and I were discussing what we noticed about the second graders’ body language during their time on stage, we agreed that it seems to be the performance aspect of public speaking that rattles most people. The presentation is performance; the Q&A is, well, being one’s self.
Which is interesting, because the goal of rehearsing a presentation, as a speech coach explained to Jimmy as she worked with him on his style, is to “be yourself, on purpose.” I like that advice. If you’re funny, then practice your presentation in a way that buffs out the nervousness so the humor can shine through. If you’re serious and measured, then practice eliminating the deadly, thoughtful pauses (er, this is me) that drags down “serious” into “dull.”
Not many of us, though, can keep up a steady stream of “talk” for the 15 or 20 minutes that is the normal length of time for a conference presentation. If I talked that long at the dinner table, I would not be “being myself.” Most children and adults, too, might feel more comfortable during the Q&A because it mimics the course of human conversation, in which we do feel freer to be ourselves. And feeling freer to be ourselves depends on an interlocutor, the presence of another person, or persons, who allow us to be ourselves, and not perform ourselves.
I’m not sure how I would solve the public speaking problem, so that all of them would be as natural and engaging as the Q&A. There are rules and expectations for presentations, after all. Audiences expect the speaker to orate, to talk at them, to entertain. From my own experience, I do know that I’m better and more lively when I design my presentation to be more like a workshop: I give the audience something to do (read something, think something), and I present my remarks and frequently pause to ask them, what do you think of this?, and then coax a response. I can do the 20-minute solo talk when I have to (and, yes, I practice, and I’m “on”), but I must admit to getting tired of the sound of my own voice by Minute Eight, and it’s likely that the audience is getting tired of it, too.
Some people are great at the longer talk. These are the holder-forths, the people you invite to dinner because you know they’ll sit comfortably at the head of the table and tell long, sparkling anecdotes. Maybe, then, there should be two kinds of presentations: the workshop kind (more like a conversation) and the oratory kind (more like a performance). A speaker could decide which form would allow her to be more herself, on purpose. And we, in the audience, would feel ourselves to be more in the presence of that person, and not simply her remarks or slides.
Photograph by Jimmy.