Sep 17, 2015 | Overcoming fears

Human brain can rewire so quickly… I remember the rainy days four years ago when I first came to Nijmegen and tried to survive at the very place. During my studies I hadn’t had too many programming courses, neither I had opportunities to present science. No wonder that programming and presentations were my two biggest nightmares. Now, they are my two favorite and most relaxing activities at work.

I recently gave some short presentation for an audience of around 80 people at the institute. I didn’t take it any seriously; I just woke up, spend two and half hours on my computer to put some thoughts together, printed a slideshow into a pdf and went straight to the Aula, in order to do my job and leave. I would not even think about it any more, if not the fact that many people poked me afterwards in the corridor only to tell me that they found it a good presentation and I was super relaxed during the talk. How come?

So, something definitely changed over these four years. And I did not practice presentation skills really… Was it because I recently put down a little bit of a burden from my shoulders and found myself an additional source of money? Or maybe, was this because I have some research ideas on my mind that finally have a chance of working out? Or, is this because some time in the past, I have hit the very bottom? There is a scene in my favorite movie, Fight Club, in which the main character gets a chemical burn in his palm, and realizes that life is passing by. And then, with that experience, he transforms from a frustrated office worker into a charismatic leader of a large terroristic organization. And that would be probably the main reason why I stopped fearing from many things I had been fearing from before: there is just no time for fearing. Once you lose everything and hit the bottom, you stop caring about stupidities. And wondering what these 80 people are thinking about you and your presentation is just a stupidity.

This is, by the way, a very important part of the famous commencement speech by Steve Jobs at Stanford:

And this is, I guess, the best way of overcoming fear: what can you fear from when you realize that one day you will die? It sounds harsh and scary but once you accept the fact, all of a sudden you start feeling calm and comfortable: if the death is inevitable, then every single day before it finally happens, is an extra gift and better to fill it in with some valuable activities (rather than sit down and worry).

One thing I would like to point out is that people are very bad at finding the true causes of events. When they are stressed with presenting, most of the time it has nothing to do with presentation skills per se. It often does’t have anything to do with science neither. Most of the time this is a combination of four things: primal fear of being punished by the audience, imposter complex, lack of confidence with language skills and barriers concerning people’s own body. Sometimes I watch a presentation from someone who binds their shoulders all the time and I am thinking: ‘do something with yourself! go to a dance class!’ And instead, they are going to a presentation skills course, or spend even more time preparing the next time and then they are surprised that there is no progress. Of course there is no progress. The content is the least important to the audience, since people tend to weight everything they hear with the level of confidence from the speaker. If the speaker is shaky, they just won’t believe that the results are as good as they are introduced anyway, so the content does not matter that much anymore. Presentation is all about the interface: simple, visual, colorful slides with a clear message, plus a welcoming, calm, attentive speaker. If you miss out on those, the audience will be just sitting there like in a mass and pray it all ends up quickly.

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