[academic filter] know nothing, must give comment on it, on the fly. how to be OK with this?
October 18, 2012 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I suffer from extreme performance anxiety but have been yanked in at the last minute to talk on something I know almost nothing about. Not performing is not an option. Need help.

I'm a postdoc in the social sciences/humanities. I've been asked at the eleventh hour to give a comment on a conference panel which is very roughly in my field of research but not enough that I'm all that comfortable with it. (The original commentator dropped out, and she is a senior and fantastic scholar who works directly on the field). The papers are not being circulated beforehand. I am freaking. out. I can't refuse to do this and anyway have already said yes. The conference is tomorrow. It will be full of very important people and professors.

to make it worse, I already constantly battle the sense that I got into my job by mistake and I shouldn't be here. I can cope when I've had time to prepare and bone up on every conceivable thing that might come up and I still almost suffocate with panic to the very last second. Giving a smart and informed comment on three papers I've never seen and know next to nothing about, in front of a room full of experts on that field is almost the worst possible public speaking scenario in academia I can think of. I've never even given this sort of comment before and I'm pretty certain there's just no way I will be able to do a good job, let alone as good a job as the fantastic woman whose shoes I will have to fill.

How can I survive this? I would be grateful for any coping mechanisms but also any advice on how to give comments on a collection of papers. I'm terrified that i'm going to be so anxious and terrified that I'll zone out while the papers are being given and have nothing to go on. Or I'll find I have NOTHING AT ALL intelligent to say or add. I feel like the best comments I've seen in these situations are those which make elegant thematic links between the papers or point to gaps not addressed, or situate the papers within broader scholarly debates. All things I feel incapable of doing because I don't feel like I have a good enough grasp of the field. I would be so grateful for any help.
posted by starcrust to Work & Money (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Practice speaking out loud so you get used to the sound of hearing your voice.
Pick out one person in the audience who seems friendly and direct your talk to them.
Don't hold any papers in your hand as you may be trembling and the papers shaking will be noticeable to others.
Try to speak with as much confidence as you can muster (even if you aren't an expert on the topic) and speak slowly. Relax in between comments, take a breath and smile -even a little one as it will relax you and you will seem more relaxed if you appear to be enjoying yourself and not just trying to get through it.
In the future you might want to take a Toastmaster's class.
Good luck!
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 4:55 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

First, is there any chance you can get in touch with the original commentator, even briefly, to get ideas on some talking points? If you can, do so immediately-- it could be a good, rough outline to start. Second, you mention that you feel that you don't have a good grasp of the field-- given the time constraint, can you pick a few papers that would make you feel more empowered in your role tomorrow?

I'm not in academia, but I have done many a moot court competition and appellate advocacy exercises. That said, a few tried and true tips for calming down the nerves.

Psych yourself up. Try hard not to let your insecurities get the best of you. Deep breaths. I know I have a tendency to talk quickly when I'm nervous. Pace yourself. Silence is okay. Don't worry about what you THINK people expect. Consider yourself a rock star given the circumstances-- filling in last minute is NO small task.
posted by chloe.gelsomino at 4:57 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do you know the names of the presenters and the titles of their papers?
How long should your commentary on each be?

Basically, the way to get through this is to realize that the audience knows you are not Dr Famous. The audience knows you are a junior person. You are just fine, and they've all been through it, and in any case you won't be onstage for very long.

You will do a bit of homework on each of the presenters ahead of time, and come up with two nice points to make about each presenter's work in general. Those will be your fallback points. They don't have to be great.

During the talks you will be looking for two nice points per talk. These can be positive (what a good insight) or inquisitive (I wonder if you would get the same results if you ran the study with x method instead), they need not be critical.

And, key technique often used by hack older researchers to cover up when they don't know jack about a talk topic: you can talk about how these things relate to your area. This is not a great plan A, but it's very common and a fine plan B if you are really feeling out of your depth. You can even say "Dr Famous wasn't able to be with us today, so instead I'm going to address these talks from the perspective of someone in $my-area."
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:57 PM on October 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm sure you've done this, but just in case -- did you double-check if the papers are not being circulated, or was it a miscommunication since you joined the panel at the last minute? What about abstracts?
posted by prenominal at 4:57 PM on October 18, 2012

All good suggestions about the performance anxiety part. As for the substance of your talk, is there some way you can relate the panel topics to topics you know better, i.e., talk about them from your own perspective based on the knowledge you have? Sometimes a different perspective (different paradigm, theory, or even discipline) provides people with a fresh and interesting twist or angle on things. Your strength in this situation is not your insider knowledge, but maybe there's strength as an outsider that you can play to.
posted by Dansaman at 4:59 PM on October 18, 2012

Here's a site (I don't know how legit) that focuses on anxiety. You might want to take a look at the breathing exercises and public speaking links.

I would recommend prepping a little; you may not have read the papers but you can research the writers and their topics so you have greater familiarity. The important thing is don't focus on being nervous, focus on the speakers and jot down a few points. Come up with three to seven generic-ish things to say, perhaps related it to your field of expertise. Also, can you touch base with the person who dropped out and see if she can give you some insight or pointers/suggestions?

Listening attentively is what's important. Don't sit there zoning out thinking, OMG, OMG, OMG. Instead, think, "wow, that's interesting."
posted by shoesietart at 4:59 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

First, you're a postdoc in a related field. You earned that education and I assure you that you know more than you're giving yourself credit for knowing. I have zero experience with academia (outside of being a student), so this advice may not be worth much, but my general approach would be one of:

* Figure out how the topic relates to what you do, and then JUST TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DO. This would require some thinking on your feet, but if the connection is reasonable at all, you know what you're talking about (and you do), and you sound confident, my guess is that no one will question you. Think about Presidential debates. They'll go completely off on a tangent, and much of the time you don't even notice that they didn't answer the original question. No one really points that out. In short, answer the question you wish you were asked.
* Be honest with your audience and say flat out that you were approached at the last minute, you have an educated familiarity (is that a thing?) with the topic and simply approach it that way. How do these papers play to an audience with some familiarity (but no specific domain expertise) of that topic? There's your comment.
* Learn ONE THING related to the subject as well as possible in the time you have left and then find a way to say that one thing. Otherwise keep your comments to a minimum.
* Can you ask the original panelist for her notes or observations on the topic (if she has any) and then credit her for writing them?

Good luck!
posted by cnc at 5:01 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Really, just remind yourself that everyone knows:
-I am filling-in for Dr Famous, and this is not my area.
-They did not circulate the papers beforehand.

So you have nothing to lose. They aren't judging your competence in your area, and they aren't judging how well you have prepared, because there was no way you could have prepared.

If you say something surprisingly insightful, bonus.

If you say something that's only baseline "what an intelligent person would say", rather than brilliant, it is fine. Discussion will focus on the papers, not on your commentary, and that will be fine.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:11 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: thanks so much for the advice, all. I am (frantically) trying to read around the topic to get a handle on it. Good ideas from several people on contacting the original Dr Famous, but I'm not sure that'd be the best thing, seeing as she dropped out for family crisis reasons and is probably not in a position to field an anxious email of this sort.

I tend to become hypersensitive to how other people are reacting to me, and I also cannot get over the feeling (actually it is more that I *know*) I am being judged by people in my department, which makes me seize up and paralyzed, and I end up sounding even more stupid. I try to tell myself I am not being judged, but I know when I'm lying to myself. I'm not sure I'm cut out for academia!

@prenominal: no abstracts, just titles and names. And I'm sure the papers are not circulating.
posted by starcrust at 5:42 PM on October 18, 2012

I have found that people FEEL more nervous than they APPEAR. Sometimes, when giving a presentation in my company, and I find out the room is bigger/fuller, etc, I freak. I can hear my voice shaking during my spiel. But, apparently, I'm the only one.
Everyone else thinks i did great, didn't seem nervous at all.
[I guess they could all be lying, but that's weird.]
My point is that any nervousness you present while speaking is probably not noticable by your listeners. At all.
This makes me feel better even though I still hear my shaking, racing voice when presenting.
posted by atomicstone at 5:54 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think these are all good suggestions. But you are afraid, you are going to be afraid and there is probably very little you can do to substantially diminish it in this short period of time so:
1) Do it, practice the first 2-3 minutes of comments--once you get rolling it will be a bit easier.
2) You will not appear as frightened as you feel
3) Do not do anything to "self medicate" unless you have a beta blocker handy.
4) If you faint you will get medical attention and no one will know why
5) If you become incoherent, start rambling endlessly or draw a complete blank while talking--forth rightly own up to it--do not apologize but acknowledge your anxiety, say this is not directly your field, make it clear (no apology) that you are filling in and then soldier on--" I would say something to the effect--"I am filling in at the last minute, this is not my specialty and I have enough trouble public speaking in my own areas of expertise but this is what I have to say" Find a phrase with which you are comfortable ( not apologetic) that gets you out of a hole. Once you unapologetically acknowledge your anxiety/fear it tends to put you back in control. remember, this is keep your self from falling further into a hole not introducing yourself. You do not have to "pick yourself up" unless you are very sure you have started to fall.
It will work out--just do it sentence by sentence--you do not have to entertain them, capture their hearts or win their undying affection--just provide them some of your observations.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:19 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of good advice here already so I won't repeat what's already been said, but I would like to focus on
very roughly in my field of research but not enough that I'm all that comfortable with it.
I'm a postdoc, and have switched fields twice during my short career. And I've found that, to an extent, you can turn "not-quite-my-field" into an advantage. That is: don't feel that you have to say what Dr Famous would have said. Make whatever connections you can between the content and the things you know well, and come at it from that angle. Remember, they're asking for your comments so it's perfectly OK to give them from your not-central-to-the-field perspective.

This puts you at a great advantage: you're now talking about a topic, or at least a perspective, which you know better than most or all of your audience. This means it's hard for them to ask awkward questions, and they will probably be at least somewhat impressed -- you might be repeating things which are commonplace in your field, but to them it will be new!

(As for the "got my job by accident, shouldn't be here" feeling: maybe not everyone gets that, but I'd wager that most of us do. I do. There was an Ask about it within the last week or so, so search for that if you want reassurance that it's a Perfectly Normal Thing.)
posted by pont at 6:24 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's not like you lied to get to the point where you are now (right???). You are just in a different place than what the original speaker was. The person who asked you to speak knows this, and if he/she doesn't, you might want to reiterate that "you know, I hope, that I'm conversant in ABC and the original speaker was going to talk about DEF and, you know, I'm not really conversant with that." But this person almost certainly knows. But he still chose you. That alone should give you some ease. That should give you confidence--he chose YOU!

Woody Allen was right. "Ninety percent of life is just showing up". Show up, try to match your field with the topics at hand, but just stick with what you know. Don't make stuff up, whatever you do. If the very important people are annoyed that you are giving a speech about something they did not expect, a reasonable person would recognize that you are a replacement and not the original speaker.
posted by zardoz at 7:24 PM on October 18, 2012

Basically it sounds like you're giving the keynote for a breakout session at a conference. Without actually reading the papers there is little to no chance that you (or anyone else) is going to say anything truly meaningful about them, and it is a rare presenter who does more than gladhand the papers even when they have them to read beforehand, so don't delude yourself into thinking that you should be saying something profound here.

A large portion of your job is to give stragglers a chance to find their seat after continental breakfast / coffee / lunch and to clue the people who are in the wrong room that they're lost and give them a chance to sneak out before the first speaker starts. After that, your job is to name the speakers, introduce their papers, and give the most basic context about where those papers fit in the grand cosmic scheme of things. If the papers are about disparate things then you talk about how the panel covers the breadth of the topic. If they're all, more or less on the same thing, then you talk about the in-depth focus of your session.

If you can contact the presenters beforehand and tell them what you've told us, that Dr. Famous can't make it and you've been asked to do the intro and ask if they have something they'd like you to throw into the introduction, chances are they're far more worried about the audience than you'll ever be as they have far more on the line! If you know the presenters, great, if not, make a point of meeting them earlier in the day so that you'll recognize them and can confirm the pronunciation of their names.

When do you have to do this? Assuming it's not tomorrow, watch this presentation. He's talking about research presentations and slide decks, but everything he says applies to just giving a talk. Oh, and read this but do NOTHING suggested there!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:31 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure what field the OP is in, but in some fields it is common to have say, three presenters read their papers, then a commentator who will basically kick off the discussion afterward. The commentator is sometimes very famous and giving prestige to junior people by discussing their work, or sometimes is just a peer or other academic who will raise some interesting points relating to the prior papers. Sometimes the comments might be very critical, or not, depending on the subfield and the nature of the event.

In my experience it is very rare to be asked to comment without being allowed to read the papers beforehand, but in this case it may actually be in the OP's favor, since everyone will know about the enforced lack of prep.

I think pont has an excellent point, that your ideas from your slightly-different area may come off as really surprising insights to the audience, and you should feel confident as the invited guest expert from another field.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:58 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think LobsterMitten's comments here are excellent and I don't have much to add except the following suggestion:

Unless the titles of the papers are jokey or so creative that you can't infer anything from them, spend 20 minutes or so thinking about how you would write a paper on that topic with that title. Since it's out of your direct field, you might have to be a bit creative, but that's even better because it will maximise the difference between "your" paper and the real one.

Think about what sort of literature search you'd do and what you already expect you'd find.
Think about other disciplines or areas of your discipline which might have something to say on the topic too.
If it's an experimental field, think about methods you might use and problems you might run into.
Come up with a couple of hypotheses.
Sketch out a rough outline of the paper, even.

This sort of preparation will hopefully mean you can then compare the actual papers when they are delivered to your expectations and own ideas, which means you will naturally be coming up with thoughts like:

"Oh, that's a clever solution to that problem"
"I wonder why they didn't do X instead of Y?"
"That sort of interdisciplinary tie-in really helps them figure out what's going on with Z."
"I probably would have also included information on Q."
"I wonder if he's read X by Y, which might relate to Z?"

Then you pick the ones of those thoughts that are most likely to be interesting to the wider audience as well, and say them.
posted by lollusc at 8:18 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

The further along I got in my career the more clear it became that the experts don't know everything-- shocker, I know. I'm in my mid 40s and have seen my career from two perspectives now: the pleb and the senior researcher...and I can tell you that there is nothing more refreshing than seeing the junior researchers get up and present at a conference. You will be engaging no matter how badly you screw up (which you won't). The junior researchers know often know a broader range of topics, while senior people get so focused that most can barely have a conversation outside of their specific area. This is such a fantastic opportunity for you, whether you hit every sentence spot on or fumble through it, it's a win win situation for you.
posted by waving at 1:19 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: lollusc's suggestion is very good. Write down in advance what parts of your own field you can possibly relate back to, and prepare what to say once you get there. If you have a few of these prepared pieces, all you need to do in the heat of the moment is find the hooks that allow you to fit them into the discussion at hand. You can also think of some formulations that will bring you to your home turf without seeming like abrupt changes of subject.

Another thing is that you won't dive in on the content the very first thing you do. You are going to start along the lines of "First of all, I find Dr A's take on this very interesting, it certainly brings a new perspective on the work of B, and I look forward to hearing Dr C's comments on this in the context of D..."

I don't know what a suitable opening sentence would be for you and your field, but whatever it is, formulate something ahead of time and rehearse it! If you don't hesitate or stumble for those first ten seconds, you will give an impression of confidence and sharpness. It also gives your brain some time to digest what the previous speaker just said, and makes it easier for you to keep talking with a good flow. Good luck!
posted by springload at 1:26 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please let us know how it came out for you. There were some excellent suggestions, you have my admiration. For many of us it is a very tough thing to do--in my life I have been all the way from petrified to blase.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:30 AM on October 19, 2012

Response by poster: It's over now. Blathered incoherently for ten minutes, I was absolutely petrified and messed up the order of my points. Thanks to everyone for all the good advice - I did manage to bring the conversation around to my own area somewhat, and hopefully did so in a not too obvious way. I know everyone understood that I was just stepping in for someone at the eleventh hour which may have helped, and people did tell me afterward that they liked my comments but they were probably just saying that to make me feel better, or were obliged to because they were the conference chair who dragged me in at the last minute...

Something which helped me, and which may or may not help anyone else, was that I took off my glasses while giving the talk, which meant I could make eye contact with people without really seeing their expression, or whether they were looking at me or not, which helped with enforcing blissful ignorance of their judgment or skepticism or disagreement.
posted by starcrust at 11:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Congratulations! And don't dismiss the people who said you did well -- they were probably being honest! We always look better to the audience than we imagine. Good job.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the update, delighted you did it, great idea taking off your glasses. Take what you will from the experience but the most important and enduring thing to take away is: you did it. The world did not end, I bet you still have a job and you did what many many people find a way to avoid. A trooper of the first degree..
posted by rmhsinc at 12:32 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read the thread the other night with great interest, and I just thought ooh, I gotta go back and see how it all turned out. Well I'm glad you reported back and that you made it through alive. That was a tough situation you found yourself in and you did a brave thing. I'm sure I speak for everyone here when I say we're proud of you. I was pullin' for ya!
posted by PaulBGoode at 10:46 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

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