Friday, December 27, 2013

The Performer

"Know your audience", said one of my postdoc adviser during our practice talks for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting.  To those who are unfamiliar with this phrase it basically means that, when you are giving a talk/presentation or just communicating (anything), tuning your presentation to the appropriate level of the audience makes it more....'presentable'. The goal is not to put the audience to sleep or lose their attention so that they can play 'fruit ninja' on their smart phone.  This may sound rather obvious to many of you, but I did not "get" it until I taught couple of courses and gave some  talks. Sure,  I did follow that advice over the years and carefully planned my presentations but something else was missing.

I found one of the important ingredient's that was missing in my talks after watching Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention last year before the elections (Here). And that was... 'chatting' ! The presentation style was...'chatty', peppered with some facts, joking occasionally,  asking questions (either to himself or to the listeners) to keep the audience involved.  He knew his audience and kept them engaged. He was a Performer!  I thought it was very well done. So I tried this out in an outreach presentation (mixing with some animated performance), went well! Then, this semester I refined it a bit with more visuals (video + pictures) in my introductory astronomy class, added some metaphors + some sci-fi literature, and the class was a ton of fun. There were only 23 students (in a 300 seat room!), so the lectures went off the rails many times. I can easily say this was the most fun I had teaching astronomy.

The public talks and classroom teaching are to some extent kind of informal. I feel more comfortable bringing out 'the performer' in these settings than in, say, a conference or a colloquium talk.  Most likely because  at a conference, I am presenting to my peers or to seniors (or even to distinguished members of the community) and at the back of my mind there is always a mini-me saying 'screw this up and you will be greeting customers at Walmart'.  May be that is why I always felt nervous all the time giving these kinds of talks. May be that is not the real 'me'. Then I thought, ' let in the performer a bit and see what happens'. Test the waters. So I did that at a recent meeting in Hawaii. What happened? First, I felt a LOT better giving that talk; more relaxed, more comfortable. I was confident too (a VERY rare attribute of mine). Second, at least two people told me they liked my talk; it was clear and presented very well (obviously this is an observer bias. People are too polite to say 'it was a total BS  and/or your slides were ugly').  But at least some small number understood what I was talking about.

So, what is the moral of the story? well, if there is one, then I think it is 'be your natural self'.  That is the real you. Who am I?  well....