Friday, February 23, 2007

I Know I Am Boring You

This week I went to a talk by a visiting woman scientist, the first such talk by a woman so far this year in my department. She is not in my field, and I'd never met her or heard of her before, but I like to go to department seminars anyway because you never know when you're going to learn something interesting. Also, as a frequent speaker at other universities, I know that it's important to have a good audience, as this definitely affects a visitor's impression of a place.

In any case, this woman was very articulate and gave a talk that summarized many years of work. She had a large audience of interested people, including many in fields closely related to her own. She has given many talks before, including as a distinguished lecturer for a professional organization. Even so, she kept interrupting her own talk to say "I am sure I am boring you" or "I know you're probably all asleep out there" and even "You probably think this is stupid, but please bear with me." When she was asked a question during her talk, she exclaimed "Someone is awake and paying attention!". It was really sad.

Has she had lots of experiences throughout her academic career that make her anxious about being boring and stupid? That isn't hard to imagine as a scenario for a woman scientist, but it would be great if damage like that could be eventually undone. This woman has tenure and was recruited away from her first tenure-track position by another university. She gets grants, has a large group of students, and has received professional awards. There is lots of objective evidence that she is a successful scientist. In talking to her one-on-one, she seemed like a happy, confident person, so maybe those "I know I'm boring you" statements are just some habit she got into when giving talks, but it's still disturbing.

Memo to anyone giving a professional talk: DON'T EVER SAY "I KNOW I'M BORING YOU" DURING A TALK. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but don't put yourself down.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I needed to hear this today. I am preparing an important talk, and suffer from self-esteem issues. It's a difficult combination - objectively I know that a large component of a successful talk is salesmanship, but that is so difficult to generate right now.

Anonymous said...

I once knew someone who talked EXACTLY like this, even in regular conversation. Non stop self-putdowns. It was a guy, though, interestingly. In retrospect he may have been Aspergers. In any case, everyone who speaks publicly (or at all, in this guy's case!) needs to learn to treat it like a performance. You wouldn't interrupt a tuba solo to say, hey guys, sorry, I know I suck. Of course not. So don't do it during a talk. A talk is also a continuous performance, and similarly you don't get much feedback on the fly.

Anonymous said...

I can think of only two reasons:

1) Low self-confidence in their ability to explain scientific data in a lucid way (or in a layman's language).

2) Think lowly of the place at which they are giving the talk.

And these could be imbued in their sub-conscious mind, wihtout themselves knowing it :)

Anonymous said...

Lots of people do this, and you're right, it really degrades the talk. And probably women are more susceptible than men, although that's anecdotal. It's an interesting counterpoint to the personality type that is needlessly obnoxious and sure of themselves.

I'm always telling my students not to apologize -- they're the experts in this particular subject, they've done something great, and they should present it proudly.

Ms.PhD said...

This is public speaking 101. You have to have a Performance Persona. Even if Performance You is more confident than you usually are, you have to put on the costume when you get up on the stage. It helps a lot with stage fright, but it also really helps your audience to get the message you want to send. You want them to ADMIRE you.

Most audience members are not as sympathetic and thoughtful as FSP. They will never, ever, feel sorry for you, no matter how pathetic you are. They will just think, "Oh how pathetic." And write you off.

The rule is to never, EVER, say anything negative at all about yourself, your work, or your presentation if you can help it. If you have to state caveats, do it in a way that makes it clear you know both the strengths and limitations of your work, or better yet, wait for someone to ask about them and then thank them for asking!

I know it's a hard habit to break, since as young girls we're socialized to be self-deprecating (as a way to emphasize how non-threatening and what a great group member you are). But it doesn't come across that way to men (or, according to the polls, to other professional women). It just comes across as little-girly.

Anonymous said...

That's happened to me recently, when I did a couple of interviews looking for a postdoc position last month in the US. The first one was the day after I flew in from Europe, so I was jet-lagged, very nervous and quite a bit off my game. When I gave my presentation I did that several times - saying "yeah this isn't great, I know" or "I hope I'm not boring you". In retrospect I feel really bad about that, because it's not something I usually do, and I could see the audience found it unsettling, but somehow I couldn't stop myself. Fortunately, the next day I was well-rested for my second interview, and gave a much better presentation without any self-put-downs.

It was really strange how being tired and nervous for the first made me go off the rails like that. I guess it takes an effort, albeit an unconscious one, to refrain from making those self-deprecating remarks.

Anonymous said...

This quarter I've declared my office an "insult free" zone. I've had to ask 2 women students to stop insulting themselves during my office hours. The irony is that they come to my office hours to ask insightful questions.

"I'm no good at science, but... {insert interesting question beyond the scope of the class}?"

One woman apologized, and the other one looked at me like I had two heads.


Anonymous said...

I've gotten over this self-criticism while giving research seminars or colloquia based on my research. However, the same insecurity is hitting me now that I'm starting to lecture classes. I simply don't have the time to treat each lecture with the care and enthusiasm as a research seminar, and I definitely feel the consequences in the lecture hall.

The fact that each lecture is new and unpracticed means that it doesn't flow like a talk. Since I need to go step-by-step through the mathematics so the students can carry out calculations for homework and the exames, there are parts of the lecture which are hard to deliver with any emotion. These steps are just necessary, but tedious, work. Finally, I've spent the last N years since my degree thinking about my research, but only the last few months recalling the basics for this course. I'm definitely competent to lecture this course, but it's not a topic which has dominated my daily thoughts. That is reflected in some hesitations as I have to work through the logic a little more carefully.

After each lecture I just feel worn out and defeated. I haven't yet made any defeatist remarks in lecture. It's entirely possible that the students don't think I'm a bad lecturer at all, but I'm sure they don't think I'm a great one either. These feelings will be good motivation for putting more effort into a lecture course before it actually begins, but I have to be wary of taking too much time away from research. After all, it is the research which is the deciding factor in my reputation in the department and the research community. And it is the research which is what drove me to academia.

I guess the only survival tactic that I would suggest to the seminar speaker, is to realize that usually we are often our own harshest critics. If people sit in a mediocre lecture or seminar, most of the time they're too busy thinking about their own work or life than closely critiquing the speaker.

Female Science Professor said...

There's a lot in your comment that suggests you will get over your feelings of 'defeat' with time and experience -- you clearly care a lot about the class, and students usually pick up on this. Have you considered requesting mid-semester (informal) evaluation from the students? Maybe the course is going better than you think it is, or maybe there are some easy things to fix that will help the students (and you).

Douglas Natelson said...

A major player in one of my research areas does this all the damned time. He's at Harvard, and is clearly brilliant, yet feels some need to claim that every talk he's about to give is "lousy" or "the worst talk at this conference". In his case, I'm pretty sure it has little to do with his actual self-esteem - I just think it's something he does.

Anonymous said...

Ha! You are exactly right. I am personally overly self-deprecating in some aspects of my life, a tic that you might say that perhaps age will defeat, but for now I choose to consider being a little too humble, which for me isn't too bad, but indeed, powerful people (and generally men) do not understand. However, even at my very-apparent lack of age and stature, I am not concerned at all with people being bored at my talks, no matter the level, classroom or Senate briefing. If someone didn't want to be there, he or she should not have come. Door's right there: don't let it hit you in the ass on the way out, sir. (Though clearly I am still sufficiently cowardly to post anonymously, ah well.)

While this is not the place, I thought also I would share briefly something circulating you will possibly not have heard, but you might appreciate given your old postings on women crying in the workplace and the general inability of men/male superiors to understand the reasons and reactions to this. Just have a listen here and perhaps share it with some younger women out there--it's already helped me.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a talk is a performance and you shouldn't say anything negative about yourself. But I must vehemently disagree that you shouldn't discuss caveats or limitations of your conclusions. I think it is just as bad if not worse to be perceived as a salesperson who oversells their work. I am always most impressed with scientists who can critically view their own work and clearly present just what can and cannot be concluded from the work. This is a strength, not a weakness in a scientist.

Female Science Professor said...

There's no disagreement. What you describe is completely different from the "I know I'm boring you" kind of statement.

Anonymous said...

maybe it stems from long ago. Being a student and saying X with force can lead to having your legs cut from beneath you. Thus you may to learn to say, well "I'm not an expert but...." providing a haven for safety. Although I now I know if you say things assertively you will be looked upon better and at somepoint you are supposed to be an EXPERT.

On the other hand, I hate it when speakers think they are the gift to the world and say everything so authoritatively, even if they are working on a theory or hypothesis much in progress.