A couple days ago, I did something that was quite out of character for me and for that reason, very, very terrifying. I know it’s a cliché to fear public speaking, but oh do I. Given the choice between a delivering a speech in front of 1,000 people or getting a permanent neck tattoo of a butt (or a butt tattoo of a neck), I might choose the latter.
My temperament veers strongly toward introversion (ahem), and while I’ve learned that there are many fantastic benefits to being an introvert, vocal eloquence in front of large (or small) groups of people is not one of them. So when at the last Pecha Kucha night my friend Tabitha jokingly suggested that all of us at the table come up with a presentation for the next event, I just giggled nervously.
However, it did get me thinking. The presentations we saw that night seemed to have been done by normal people, not the award-winning super heroes or science and art geniuses you often see on TED Talks. Plus, the format of Pecha Kucha is 20 photos x 20 seconds each, so the presentations amount to only 6 minutes, 40 seconds. That’s not long at all! Mitchell was also thinking about presenting. We had fun talking about different ideas for presentations, which made us feel smart and interesting, thus building our confidence to do it for real. We signed up. (Then Mitchell dropped out because he sucks. Actually, he got crazy busy, but more on that later.)
I was realistic, though. I knew it would be nerve-racking and difficult for me. But I’m American, goddammit, which means that my life is basically a marathon self-improvement project. Americans are always trying to better themselves, hence Oprah, Tony Robbins, and the increasing popularity of yoga. Public speaking, therefore, represented an obstacle to be conquered. I would preemptively attack it, the American way. True character-building, one terrible experience at a time.
After batting around a few ideas, I decided I would try to do a science nerd talk. Science often gets a bad rap. Its findings are denied, and it’s often accused of ruining all the mystery and wonder of life. Even when this isn’t the case, there seems to be a stark disconnect between the scientific community and everyone else. As a result, a lot of people are simply turned off by or intimidated by science. I think they picture math equations, long words, and piles of homework. But no! Science is freakin’ awesome. And freakin’ weird. Its findings add whole new levels of awe and wonder to this crazy life, planet, and universe of ours. Oh, how I love it! Watch out, science nerd quote:
“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan
So, how to convey this message? I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast about the microbes in our guts and how research is starting to show that the bacteria and other creepy crawlies living in our guts are linked with our mental health. Gut microflora appear to influence anxiety, depression, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, and all sorts of stuff.
Some clinical studies have even shown that taking supplements of probiotics may be able to elevate people’s moods. In other words, microbes can make you happy! Who needs prozac when you have bacteria?! To me, this shows simultaneously how much and how little we know about ourselves. So, I figured this topic would be a good way to lead up to my final message that science rules, stop being scared of it. Although, admittedly, I believe more people took home the message: Eat more yogurt.*
As if to prove the research findings, my nerves really did mess with my tummy. I was ball of anxiety for the 5 days leading up to the presentation, imitating the stressed mice I was going to speak of. When Thursday night rolled around, I thought I might hyperventilate. The closer it came to my turn, the more my heart tried to escape my chest. This feeling was only worsened by the presentation before mine, given by a rather talented photographer, Dominic Blewett. He presented on the topic of extreme religious festivals in Southeast Asia. His images included people putting various objects through their cheeks (like swords and umbrellas), running face first into the floor, and beating themselves bloody, all in the name of…er…no idea. The photos were amazing, but they were also quite intense and only exacerbated my state of panic.
Luckily, one of the advantages of introverts is our tendency to wildly overprepare in the face of potential public humiliation. I practiced my speech with my mom, my cat, my dog, my TV, my coffee pot, my alter ego, and my coworkers. I tried to imprint the timeframe of 20 seconds into my brain circuitry (turns out, 20 seconds is a magical length of time that can seem to last for either the blink of an eye or an eternity in a presentation). Despite my panic, the preparation allowed me to mimic a recording, and the words just sort of plopped out. Although I felt a genuine choking sensation by slide 19, causing me to make up words entirely (note: microbiotics is not the same as microflora, but fortunately it sounds like it might be), everything basically went as rehearsed. Well, even. Triumph! Relief!
I’m not sure yet if 6 minutes and 40 seconds of triumph is worth days of dread and anxiety, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. Maybe the next time I have to present research findings at a workshop for my job, it won’t be so bad.
Aside from myself and Dominic, other presenters were:
- Arno Baude, a funny artist and photographer who has an affinity for Hawaiian shirts and tarp suits.
- Monique Gross, who did a playful and poetic piece about 1,000 English phrases.
- Guim Valls Teruel, an advocate of electric bicycles, who has convinced me that they are even more awesome than my Super Cub.
- Joe Ruelle, who did a funny piece about Vietnamese food slang. I’ll never look at organic vegetables, chôm chôm fruit, or bánh mỳ in the same way.
If you’re interested in doing your own presentation, the next Pecha Kucha event in Hanoi is slated for after the summer. You can email the organizers Colin, Gareth and Van Anh for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks to them for organizing the event and thanks to the other presenters for their insight and entertainment.
If you want to learn more about the gut-brain connection, here’s a good start:
- The Neuroscience of the Gut
- Friendly bacteria cheer up anxious mice
- TED Talk: The brain in your Gut
- The Gut-Brain Connection
*Sidenote: I feel the need to clarify. To my understanding, participants of the clinical trials demonstrating that probiotics can elevate mood were given supplements with very high levels of probiotics. You won’t find these in an average cup of yogurt. So, don’t blame me if you still feel crabby after eating yogurt for a month.