Since graduating from college and starting my career, I have probably given around a thousand presentations in front of audiences of varying size. There are the PowerPoint presentations in front of small groups. There are lecture and how-to type presentations in front of larger groups. I’ve lost track of how many podcasts I’ve been on. I’ve given presentations at science fiction conventions, done public readings of my fiction, been on countless panels (which is kind of like giving a presentation). I’ve been a presenter at the Nebula Awards1, been a paid speaker on Evernote topics, and given wedding toasts and eulogies. Every single time I am getting ready to present or speak, I get what I call the pre-presentation jitters.
I get nervous. I can’t sit still and so I begin to pace. If I have a visual presentation, I begin to review it, looking for the tiniest improvements I can make. If the audience is large, I wonder if I am up to the task. If the audience is small, I also wonder if I am up to the task. What authority do I have on given subject? That is a question that frequently comes to mind when the jitters arrive. The jitters are immune to meditation. Indeed, the only thing that makes the pre-presentation jitters disappear is when I finally begin presenting.
Prior to my senior year in college, I couldn’t stand speaking in front of an audience at all, regardless of size. I’d do it if I had to, but I didn’t like it. Something happened in my senior year that changed my mind about it. I read Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov for the first time. He talks a lot about his own public speaking in that volume and emphasizes particularly that he speaks off-the-cuff. Speaking off-the-cuff had never occurred to me. That was not how I was taught to do things. I school we had to memorize speeches and recite them, we didn’t speak extemporaneously. Asimov, it turned out, was a good speaker. He asked himself if such a talent could have gone unnoticed for an entire lifetime if he had not been pressed into service by circumstance.
As it happened, I had to give a presentation in a class I was taking and I decided to use this opportunity to see if off-the-cuff speaking made a difference. It did. I felt much more comfortable not forcing myself to memorize a speech. Instead, I knew the material, had it ordered in my mind, and went with it. The one mistake I made that first time was not fully preparing myself for the jitters. There was a key point I was trying to make and I had the perfect line for it. When it came time to deliver that line–I blanked.
But I survived, and it wasn’t so bad. The more I presented the more comfortable I felt. I always prepare well, but always speak off-the-cuff, as Asimov taught me to do though his memoir. And no matter how many presentations and talks I’ve given, no matter how many panels I’ve been on, or courses I’ve led, I get the jitters every single time.
I was thinking about this because I had a presenation to give to our senior leadership team today. I prepared well, and felt I was ready. Around 12:30pm, the jitters started, pretty much on queue since my presentation began at 1pm. Or so I thought. When I double-checked my calendar, I discovered, much to my dismay, that my presentation was not until 2pm. I’d gotten the jitters an hour too early!
I thought this would eliminate the jitters I’d get an hour later, but it didn’t. At around 1:30pm, I felt them coming on. My presentation–part of a larger meeting–was scheduled for 2pm, but the previous discussion had gone over and it was closer to 2:15pm when I finally got started–which meant an extra fifteen minutes of those pre-presentation jitters.
The good news, though, is that, like Asimov, once I begin to speak, the jitters disappear as if they were never there. I can count on that as much as I can count on the jitters themself.
Written on March 22, 2022.
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- The science fiction and fantasy equivalent of the Oscars. ↩