We're a little crazy, about science!

Practice makes… less terrible?

I wouldn’t say practice makes perfect, because unless I’m recording something it’s not going to be perfect and even when I record talks/presentations it takes hours longer than anticipated, multiple tries, only comes out somewhat decent, and are not easy to do in general. So I’m opting to think that practice makes presenting slightly less terrible. I enjoy giving talks and sharing science, which is why I’m here writing frankly. But it’s not all off the cuff.

The difference between speaking and writing is that I can at least edit my words after they are written (although I do opt to leave most of what I write in its original stream of consciousness format, which probably accounts for all the parentheses around here). It is challenging at times to find the right words when you’re speaking them for the first time and the general rule of thumb is to write it out before you say it. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Now personally I don’t mind going in somewhat unprepared but more often than not that doesn’t lead to the result I want. Only once did I do a presentation without any prep (because I had no idea I was going to be asked to present) and it went like I had imagined. So I’ve taken to writing out the points I’m trying to make and at the very least have a outline of what I would like to say. That keeps things less rigid in my mind and makes the process of speaking a little less stressful.

Because I’ve also found that if I write every word I want to say, I’ll stumble over my language and then I might as well have not written anything at all. Frankly it’s worse than if I just went for it without practice so that was also a bit of a learning experience for me. I’m not 100% sure how people manage to read directly from prompts anyway, maybe I’m just the odd person out or maybe it just takes practice. I don’t really know how others do their talks or if they just practice and memorize the way they explain things.

As I’m getting ready to do my proposal defense the next few weeks of practice will be key to doing a good job. Part of that is practice, part of it is making sure I say what needs to be said, and the rest is really luck. There will be questions on things that are not clear, suggestions for different types of analysis, and just general things to make sure that I aim on the right track. Mostly they will want to understand what I’m doing.

My committee has a broad background and not everyone has experience with EEG, but some know biology, some know spinal cord injury, others are experts in algorithms for data processing and cleaning, and the list goes on. Basically the questions I get from my committee will mostly reflect what they know and their background, but it won’t be limited to just that. There will almost certainly be questions about the technique I’m researching (my “super secret technique”) and ways I plan on using the data.

Part of my job is not just to get my proposal nailed down, it’s to make sure I anticipate questions they could have for me. I believe part of that will come from practicing with others. So today and next week I plan on practicing in the lab with a few of my fellow grad students. The first presentation will probably be one of the hardest because I only recently finished my slides (but I finished them damn it!) and I haven’t had a chance to make sure the story is coherent.

Afterwards school-PI will want me to make changes and I hope that sometime next week I will do my second (and ideally) final practice to make sure that I’m ready for the big day. I still don’t know when that day is, most (4 out of 6… oh make that 3 out of 6! I just got an update as I’m writing this!!!) of my committee members have not selected times they are available yet, but I knew that was going to be an issue so I’ll just have to keep bothering them until I know something. If there is enough time I may do one more practice round prior to the big day, but I don’t know that I will have time or that it will help.

A lot of this is still up in the air and while practice does make less terrible, it also has diminishing returns. Out of the two major talks I need to give before I finish my degree (the proposal defense and my actual PhD defense) I would rather spend my time and efforts making sure the PhD defense goes off without a hitch. This proposal defense at this point is more of a formality because I’ve already been awarded funding for the project so it wouldn’t make sense to try and drastically change that.

Instead the committee will probably be mostly concerned with my timeline. Hell I’m concerned about my timeline. It will be rushed for sure even if everything goes off without any problems and I collect all the data I need for the project. There’s so much work between now and when I graduate I would not be surprised if they suggest that my timeline is only barely reasonable. I’ve seen it happen in other students proposals so I know for certain it will come up in mine.

Between us internet friends though, I’m not as stressed out about the proposal defense as you may imagine. I’m more stressed out about all the work that needs to happen before and after. I’ve worked with school-PI for awhile now on coming up with the timeline for this project and I know what I need to do. More importantly I (mostly) know how to do it. I mean, the proposal defense will be stressful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just a small step in all the things that need to happen so it feels less stressful by comparison, if that makes sense. It’s always the pile of little things that stresses me out, not the one big thing.

In the meantime, I need to get to practicing because the big day is coming and it will be here soon… finally!


4 responses

  1. I feel we are kindred spirits. I met with a committee member this afternoon and them with my chair for 2 hours today and am moving toward defending my proposal this semester. Both think its doable but have given me tons of things I need to address or clarify in the written proposal before the presentation. Good luck! We’ll get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 1, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    • That’s exciting! I hope it goes well for you, it sounds like you have a good support system. I’m excited to see how things go. Thank you and yes, we will get there!


      April 2, 2022 at 10:51 am

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever read from a script or a teleprompter when giving a presentation. I treat the slides themselves as my outline/notes, and then do practice runs to dial in how much time I take, and to get the way I want to expand on the slide bullets stuck in my memory. The first run is usually meandering and halting; I definitely wouldn’t try to give a presentation without prep.

    The one exception I can think of, was the time I said some words at an outdoor protest. So I didn’t have any slides; it was a speech, not a presentation. For that I wrote a script. But I tried to practice it until I had it half-memorized, so I just had to glance at the paper now and then, instead of straight-up reading it. I wanted to be able to make more eye contact with the audience and also not “sound like I was reading.”

    And yeah, at some point I have to reassure myself that my grasp of the talk is “good enough” and stop going over it. It never quite feels certain, and yet when it’s time I still pull it off.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 1, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    • Oh good it’s not just me! I always see movies with news reporters and things just reading word by word from a screen and I really felt like something was wrong with me haha!

      The outline method seems to work best for me as well. I’m not great at memorization. The one time I happened to have to present without prep and succeeded I still don’t get how that managed to work, I guess luck is a factor here too.

      Thank you as always for the support, I always appreciate your perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 2, 2022 at 10:54 am

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