The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Your First Conference Talk: Short-term Pain for Long-term Gain

public speaking  This Saturday (4th May 2013) is the 42nd Annual Student Conference of the Welsh Branch of the British Psychological Society at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, where over 40 undergraduate and postgraduate students from universities across Wales will present their research.  Among the sacrifices that will be made by these students is giving up their Saturday to do ‘uni work’ and getting up ridiculously early (my lot have to set off at 6am and will arrive home close to midnight).  These pale into insignificance when compared to the true sacrifice that they are going to make though;  they will put themselves through the panic, fear, and anguish that is that first talk to a room full of strangers.

I don’t remember my first talk very well –  but I remember the lead-up to it far too well, it is etched in my mind forever.  The crafting of the PowerPoint slides; the copious amount of notes made and the rote rehearsal of these notes;  the repeat performances, to an empty room to start with and then to friends and loved ones who foolishly happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time;  the looks on people’s faces as they go through that agony of being totally fed up listening to you mess up your explanation of slide three for the umpteenth time whilst knowing that they need to keep encouraging you at the same time;  finally perfecting it and feeling triumphant until the person listening tells you that you’re seven minutes over your alotted time… and all of this before you have even walked into the room and given your talk.

And then the day comes… you are ready.  You know exactly what you are going to say.  You are going to introduce yourself and the name of your talk… and then the session chair says the exact words that you were going to say.  You freeze… now what?  Do you just repeat what they said and sound like a parrot?  Do you skip the opening slide?  It won’t matter because right now everything is about to become a blur.  All except for one thing… when you stop talking for more than two seconds this will seem like approximately half an hour.  You will feel the thought processes behind people’s eyes… why isn’t he saying anything?  Does he actually know what he is talking about?  Information on the slides become strange concepts in your head… what exactly did those people do whose names seemed so important that they were worthy of being a reference on this slide?  Why does the simple explanation of this bar chart suddenly seem to have escaped me?  Finally you make it to… the questions.  When those words are uttered, ‘Any questions?, you pleadingly look around the room praying for everyone to just keep their hands down by their sides… nobody wants/needs to know anything else… but there’s always one isn’t there?  Someone has to go and ask a question and you can’t even figure out what they are talking about… they are using words from your language but they just seem to make incomprehensible sentences with an inflection in their voice that signifies this is actually a question.  And then your time is over and there is applause… sympathetic applause because all of the people who went before you were so much better than you and all those who come after you will be so much better than you –  yes, you have given the worst talk at the conference.

Of course, in reality it isn’t that bad.  That pause that seemed like half an hour?  To everyone else it really did only seem like a couple of seconds, they barely noticed.  The talk didn’t come out exactly as you had rehearsed it all those times?  It never does.  Feel like everyone else was better than you, more confident than you?  So do most people.

Giving a talk to a room full of strangers is stressful, particularly the first time that you do it.  So why do it?  The simple answer is because it is worth it… worth it for that buzz and feeling that you get when you have finished it… worth it when people come and talk to you about it afterwards… worth it when you realise that you can actually do it, and that when you are faced with these types of challenges in the future that you are capable.


I’ve seen lots of good talks and posters at these student conferences and I’m sure that I will see many more this weekend.  So kudos to all those students (not just my own, but all of those who are coming from all over Wales to present) – you will put a lot of effort into your presentations, you will feel extremely nervous doing it… but it will all be worth it.  Enjoy!



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Categorised in: Education, Psychology

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