I was recently chatting to my advisor and expressed a certain amount of anxiety and stress around the (at the time) pending Cambridge keynote response talk…thing. His response was to cheerily, and slightly waspishly, go “oh come on! You love it”. This reaction - and my reaction to it, in turn - got me thinking about how I relate to talks and public speaking more generally.
“You love it” is a not-unreasonable conclusion to draw about my feelings on public speaking. Historically, I did a lot of it, and still have an open offer of doing more. As of writing, I’ve got one talk and one guest lecture scheduled, and a second (fancy) talk working its way through various administrative processes. But this isn’t because I like public speaking. To the contrary, the idea and practice of doing it brings up, at best, mixed feelings. When I’m preparing for or giving a talk, I’m not feeling love or excitement, at all. Rather, I’m feeling a sort of sick, anxious nausea. The fear of being a disappointment; the fear of being misrecognised; the fear of being seen, whether it goes well or badly. I am both someone who gives a lot of talks and also someone who gets actual stage fright.
So: why do I do them? Partly the answer is instrumental (it’s generally good, pragmatically speaking, to make contacts with people who might cite/hire/recommend/read you). Partly it’s the aesthetic - although not in the way you might suspect. Mostly, though, it’s something else - something I had to learn how to see. Learning that, much like learning what a crock is, required me to ask: what are the talks I have enjoyed? What do they have in common? And when I think of the best talks, and the best moments, I think of:
- How talking at Seattle University led to meeting Jodi, now a mentor, committee member and friend;
- Getting to hear from the organiser of the Claremont Colleges talk that my work had prompted their undergrad thesis - and, after the talk, being able to put them in touch with people at their first post-graduation workplace far, far away so they started with some familiar faces and community;
- The way talking at the OII let me put faces and mannerisms to Kate and Corinne, who I have subsequently had the privilege of collaborating with and becoming friends with;
- Making community I didn’t even know I had in Pittsburgh, from strange friends (Katherine, Maggie) to familiar strangers (Aurelia, Kentrell).
What all these have in common is, in part, that they’re not really about the talk. They’re as different from a talk as it’s possible to get. When you imagine public speaking, it conjures up scenes of one-way communication: a single person projecting information at an audience. It evokes validation through acclaim, literally. The benefit to the self is validation that you matter, because so many people showed up to pay attention to you, or invited you to insert-fancy-place-here. And sometimes this possibility is what shifts me into agreeing with a talk, because I’ve never been someone who thinks much of myself, as a scholar or speaker or human being. But that sense of insufficiency and out-of-placedness means that saying yes is less to do with desiring the exposure, and more to do with fearing that saying no will confirm my insufficiency to the other party and close avenues off.
When I imagine the talks I liked, though, what I see is not this one-way relationship of exposure and recognition, but - as is seen in all of the examples above - moments of resonance. If recognition is being seen - a one-way relation of confirmation - then resonance is bidirectional. It’s not about a crowd or a logo so much as it is the individual moments of: sharing an excited look with one audience member. Or: hering the introduction and realising your work meant something very particular to the person organising, and that means something to you. It’s not a one-way transmission, but a mutually-shaping exchange - one that produces different parties at both ends. Or, as Hartmut Rosa puts it, it is characterised by a mode of relation in which “relationships thus change both subjects and the world they encounter.”
Resonances are a powerful and important part of the human condition, and a beautiful panacea in a world that is too-often characterised by alienation; by people setting ourselves apart from each other, being sincere only ironically (or: only being able to express sincerity insincerely). They represent moments of delightful vulnerability in a society that rarely allows for that. They enable change, and alignment, and community.
Of course: talks aren’t the only place the possibility of resonance appears. In some ways they’re a very bad place for these possibilities; the whole format is set up to be one-way. Basically the only reason they’re so common is probability - public speaking is an opportunity to come face to face with a hundred people, so of course the odds are pretty good you might speak to one and be spoken to in turn. One of the delights of doing less public speaking these days - a move in part made in recognition of the dark paths my own issues with vulnerability were leading me down - has been the opportunity to find other sites and sources. In particular, teaching, which has become an activity of great joy for me. I’ve now been teaching (professing? yuck) at Seattle University for two years now, and cherish it in part because of the opportunities it gives to intertangle with others and be surprised by those resonant moments. Because of the opportunities it has given me to realise that what I like about talks is nothing to do about the talks, and everything to do with the people, each of them, and the potential that our collision represents.
None of this is to say I’m against talks themselves, or find the actual presentation and speaking bit “boring”. Again; I’m scheduling some as we speak. But the excitement I experience is not so much the excitement of Being Seen as it is the excitement of seeing, and being changed by what and who I see, and occasionally being a catalyst for that same double-movement in the people that talks give me an excuse to meet.
Now, if you excuse me: I’ve got a zoom catchup with an ex-student, and to plan a post-graduation celebration for three more :).