Science helped me to conquer my nerves

Image by Will Marlow via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Image by Will Marlow via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In a school science lesson when I was about 14, I had to give a short speech to the rest of the class. I can’t remember what subject I was talking about, but I do remember that — with the eyes of my teacher and my classmates on me — my nerves made my hands to shake so violently that I struggled to read my notes.

This was not an isolated incident: I had always been shy of speaking in front of large groups and throughout my school career I avoided speaking up in class. The phrase “Sarah should participate more in class discussions” was a common feature in my progress reports.

It wasn’t just speaking in front of an audience that petrified me. As a keen musician I was regularly involved in local concerts. I enjoyed orchestra, choir and other group performances, but I often dreaded the solo performances because there was “nowhere to hide”. However, I persevered and, with encouragement from my family and music teachers, I made some progress towards conquering my nerves.

Sometime in the last decade or so, the shy teenager who struggled to speak up in front of her classmates grew up into someone who actually enjoys giving presentations. How?

I think science has played a big role in this transformation because talking about your research to an audience is an important aspect of working in academia. The first talk I gave about my research was in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I was well prepared for the talk and it went OK, but when it was time for the questions (when I actually had to interact with my audience) my mind went blank.

The five years I worked in academic research did wonders for my confidence in speaking infront of an audience. A presentation skills course in the first year of my PhD provided some very useful tips and a boost to my confidence. Regular lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, poster sessions and even a talk at a conference meant that giving presentations became a fairly regular aspect of my life. To start with, I needed to be very well prepared to be able to give a talk and would have rehearsed it several times. But as I became more confident, I was able to relax a bit. I would still plan what I wanted to say and when, but I no longer needed to have memorised a script.

Even though I’ve left academia, I still need to give talks, both in my current job and as a volunteer in Girlguiding. Much to my surprise I have even performed in a small local pantomime (a light-hearted drama/musical production) to raise money for charity. I had never done any acting before the pantomime and 5 years ago I would have not have even considered taking part. I was a bit nervous on the day but both performances went really well and I even managed to enjoy the experience! If only my old school teachers could see me now…

Science cannot take all the credit for my newly found confidence, some must be reserved for my music teachers who encouraged me to sign up for concerts, and for the opportunities I have had to speak in front of large groups in Girlguiding. However, I might not have taken up some of these opportunities if I had not also gained more confidence through the need to talk about my research.

N.B. I should point out that I am not completely “cured” of my nerves about performing. To this day, I still find playing the piano in front of an audience absolutely terrifying. It’s a work in progress…


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