Conference presentation post-mortem

I finally did a presentation as part of a conference panel.1 I kind of feel like I am too old to be hitting this very modest professional milestone, but I also feel like I ought to mark it because it is a Thing I did, and it’s not like I’m the only career-changer out there.2 So I have my little speaker ribbon, I did a Thing, and now I never again have to do that Thing for the first time.

This was a very short presentation and a good way to finally do the Thing. I felt uncomfortable, I think the results were mixed, and I have a useful punch list of things to work on in the future.3

I still do not like public speaking. I am often socially anxious, to one degree or another, and generally introverted. So while I can be on in a conference environment, and even genuinely enjoy the experience, I am not happy with the performative element. (High School Megan, who loved performing in plays, is slightly mystified by this development.) But I am uncomfortable within “suck it up and deal with it” tolerances.

I think I actually preferred being in a big room. There was a nontrivial amount of space separating the table from the audience, so I was mentally able to relegate the audience to a vague over there sort of place. In the smaller rooms, it’s harder to deny that there are actual people right there. (Generally nice, interested, collegial people, but still. Being the public speaker—as opposed to someone who is speaking in what happens to be public—remains anxiety-inducing.)

I need to practice using a microphone. I was holding the microphone by default (it is not for me; and even if it was for me, the size of the room and distance to the audience made it more obviously necessary). But I know from early audience feedback (thank you! And I’m sorry!) that I didn’t always have it angled for good pick up. This is a thing I need to work on. (This is not a thing I was expecting to have to work on: it’s a microphone, how tough can it be? But apparently I need to give myself microphone 101 training.)

I should do something to work on my delivery. (I’m probably not going to do the things people recommend to work on my delivery, e.g. lots of public speaking to get exposure and practice.) On the plus side, though I’m really not a big fan of my voice, I was not thinking “I hate my voice” for the entire time I was speaking.

I need to stick to my script. I’m not a good extemporaneous speaker. I will ramble or pause or jump ahead if I have to speak off the cuff or from a rough outline. This was a case where reading-notes-from-the-table was an acceptable option, and that’s the sort of thing I need to fully embrace. I feel like I did basically okay when I was on-script, veering into awkward when I was off-script.

I need to print the script out or have it in PowerPoint notes or something. I had it on my phone in a text file, which was basically all right but still meant one hand had to be doing something (thank you, Rebecca Hopman, for running slides!) and there was a practical limit to the text size.

I need to have two scripts: a full one, and a short-on-time fallback. We were running behind from the beginning of the panel, thanks to some technical difficulties, and certainly never made up that time. My rehearsals had clocked in around twelve minutes, and I’d backloaded my presentation with visuals, so speeding up wasn’t as much of a problem as might otherwise have been the case. (I had structured the presentation that way in part because I was worried about time, and in part because I figured I’d be more disciplined about keeping to a script early.) But pre-written escape hatches would be a more elegant solution.

I should include education in my bio if I want to conform to standards. I’m not sure why I didn’t, and it ended up feeling (to me) like a weird gap. I guess my thinking was that, since it was a professional archives conference, a master’s degree was pretty much assumed (with a few exceptions involving grad students and very early career folks). So while having a history degree rather than a library degree puts me in the minority, it still didn’t seem worth mentioning. The same goes for having my CA: everybody else in the room, with very few exceptions, has it or could have it. (If I specifically don’t want to conform to standards—if, say, I want to challenge assumptions underpinning the profession—then I guess that’s a valid reason to leave out educational info, but even then a panelist bio is not really the best venue for issuing such challenges.)

I feel like attribution was a mixed bag. My slides mention one position by title, and I included the person’s name in my script (though I am not sure I said her name, and afterwards it was clear that someone passingly familiar with the Chemical Heritage Foundation had thought I was talking about someone else) so this is either another illustration of me needing to stick to my script or needing to be more explicit in my slides. Much of my talk was devoted to Othmeralia, which lists contributors but does not attribute posts. So while I did a lot of linking back to specific posts and listed contributors by name in one slide, I didn’t really discuss (for example) who had made the particular animated GIFs in my presentation. I ended up specifically naming the person who is essentially a project manager, and the person who contributed other material from the Beckman Legacy Project. In the first case, I wanted to make it really clear that I was a contributor, not initiator or heavy-lifter, of the library’s Tumblr. In the second, since I am working specifically on that project, I wanted to make it especially clear that not all Beckman posts were mine. That still meant that I had a lot of images without names attached (including the GIFs, which count as transformative); that’s formally correct, per the Tumblr’s practice, and I’ve made informal mentions of who does what elsewhere. So I think it’s…fine, and though I feel a little weird I don’t think it seems like I was claiming credit for everything included in the presentation, and the weirdness is mainly a side effect of the way the Tumblr is organized. This also feeds into broader musings about labor and knowledge production—has anyone ever been to a DH-themed (un)conference where tenure committees’ focus on monographs, to the detriment of collaborative projects, was not a topic of discussion?—so while I think I wasn’t wrong, for this context, I may end up rethinking my approach if I encounter similar issues in the future.

So to sum up: I spent entirely too much time stressing about a ten-to-twelve minute presentation. Now it is done, and done is good.

  1. I presented at last week’s MARAC conference in Newark. My presentation was on social media at the Chemical Heritage Foundation as part of the session 6 panel on April 21. The slides, with notes, are deposited in the MARAC Collection in the University of Maryland’s digital repository: I also put them up on Humanities Commons:
  2. I’m not the only career-changer, and I’m also not the only non-exceptional person out there. See this Twitter thread from Lucia Lorenzi. 
  3. This is my own punch list, developed without external feedback. On the off chance anyone wants to offer feedback, comments are open.