Since the dawn of time, humans have been working to avoid public speaking (see Libby, I do listen to what you say). And then there are those freaks, mutants, monsters, and ne’er-do-wells such as myself that keep putting ourselves into the position where we have to speak publicly. Even worse, we have to speak in front of audiences that know what we are talking about and can immediately spot any bullshit that we try to sell.
For the last several years, I have been presenting papers at the annual conference of the Society for Californian Archaeology (SCA - not to be confused with the Student Conservation Association, which I am also a member of, Steven Carl Armstrong, who is my father, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, with which I had some rather bad experiences). Although the experience has generally turned out to be positive (my first year, I even received some good, constructive criticism from the fellow who, three years later, would be my boss), it has never been fun in the lead-up.
Two years ago, I was asked to present a paper in a symposium dedicated to my MA advisor, one Dr. Michael Glassow. The idea behind the symposium was pretty simple, really. Mike’s students – past and present – would present papers on those aspects of their own research that was influenced by Mike’s work. I was asked to present, and I agreed, thinking that it would be a friendly gathering mostly comprised of Mike’s current and recent students, most of whom were friends of mine.
What I hadn’t taken into account was that a very large number of the pre-eminent archaeologists in California were trained by Mike. I also had taken into account that the loyalty that Mike’s students felt towards him was not limited to his current and recent crop, but that his past students still held a good deal of affection for him as well. If you were one of Mike’s students, you knew that you would be worked hard, but come out ahead as a result, and we all appreciated that, and apparently nobody ever forgot it.
So, when the program came out, I was shocked to see that two of Mike’s current students (including myself) were on the bill – and so was nearly every major archaeologist who works in California. I was more than a bit daunted. Still, I had agreed to present a paper, so I continued to work on my presentation, not sure what kind of a reception I would get.
Well, the day finally came, and I sat through the morning session, hearing about some very good research, but also hearing some pointless bickering amongst the other archaeologists.
And then my turn came.
My hands were sweating, my mouth was dry, my throat was sore. I walked up to the podium, stepped behind it, and plopped my notes down in front of me. Making certain that my PowerPoint presentation was functioning, I began to speak.
Luckily, I was so well rehearsed in the presentation that I was able to turn on auto-pilot and just speak. I cannot recall what I said, how I said it, or much else about the talk. I can remember that I was very nervous, that I had lost feeling in my hands and feet, that my throat was dry and every word felt as if it were being yanked out accompanied by a Brillo pad, and that I was sure that I could see complete disapproval on every face in the audience. I recall that I could feel my undershirt soaking in sweat. And I can remember thinking “I’m babbling. Nothing I’m saying makes any sense. These people all know that I am an idiot.”
After my talk concluded, I hastily took my seat, and was grateful that I was followed by a rather well-known archaeologist that everyone was eager to see. I had hoped that my talk would fade from everybody’s memories. But, just in case, I spent the rest of the day avoiding the people who I had seen in that room.
The next day, I was in the book room, when I was cornered by somebody who was both a very well-known archaeologist, and who had heard me speak.
“Hey,” he said “are you Matthew Armstrong?”
“Yes.” I felt my stomach trying to find a new home by crawling into my lungs.
“I saw your talk yesterday.” He had a neutral expression, and I was sure that I was about to get it (what, precisely, is "it" anyway?).
“Yeah. You raised some good points about my work. Glassow’s students tend to be pretty sharp.” And with that, he shook my hand. “Also, that was a pretty tough room, and you held your own pretty well. I wish I had your confidence when I was your age.” And with that, he left.
As I would later learn, the rigidity of posture, tone of voice, and furtive glancing about that I had been engaged in out of nervousness had been mistaken for confident poise, a strong and certain voice, and confident engagement with the audience. In other words, everyone had gotten exactly the wrong impression, and I was better off for it. And nobody thought I was an idiot.
There is often a wide chasm between what is and what is perceived.