Sunday, May 20, 2007

Woo hoo! Public speaking is fun!

OK, so I'm back from the general audience talk I mentioned in the last post. First of all, thanks to everyone for suggestions and well-wishes. I stayed with that 50/50 frame-to-scholarly-stuff ratio; I made a handout with some pictures thrown in just for fun; and I also gave the draft to Bullock to read since he's a political scientist and would be able to catch the "only an academic lit. crit. would get that" parts.

And I think it went really well. Some of my audience consisted of my colleagues, so there were academics there, but in various disciplines (though three colleagues from English). But the rest were area professionals and also some high school seniors who'd been given scholarships for college, plus their parents. I guess I might as well say the occasion was the annual meeting of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, so obviously that crowd is going to be a friendly and interested crowd. And since PBK is dedicated to the importance and value of the liberal arts, I hit the "speaking for the dead"/"why it matters" points pretty hard. And I got really good questions -- the first from a colleague, but the rest from the non-academic audience members. Afterwards, my senior colleague said "that was really smart" and the organizer (also an academic) said I did a great job balancing the frame and content, and always bringing the more abstract ideas back to the concrete examples, and the past to the present. But the best comment came from a woman who got her M.D. in the 1950s (wow. just wow.) who came up to me afterwards and said, "Thank you for giving a scholarly talk -- it's been awhile since we've had one of those." She's also one of the people who asked a smart question.

So it was really gratifying for me, personally, but also gratifying to be reminded that there are people who care, who are interested, who want to know -- sometimes just for the sake of knowing. Of course, witha PBK audience, I'm preaching to the choir to some extent, but there were scientists there, and my talk was a humanities talk, and sometimes they need to be reminded that what we do matters, too.

Anyway, when I started my talk, people were still eating dessert and drinking coffee (it was a luncheon), so there was a lot of clinking going on. But about half way through, when I got to the difficult scholarly bit, the room got very, very quiet. At first I thought, "Oh god, I've lost them," but actually I think they were just listening very carefully because they realized my material was getting a little more complex. Bullock says that he kept an eye on the audience and they seemed attentive throughout -- all except the really, really old guy (he was about 90, I think), who fell asleep. But then he'd probably fall asleep in the middle of the Super Bowl!

So it was a positive experience, and like I said in my last post, it was good for me to "translate" my work this way -- good for teaching, good for "public intellectual" work, good for being an ambassador of the humanities and literary study and medieval studies. It was a lot of work this week, and I was very, very nervous about it, but now that I've done it once, and I know what to except, I'd do it again. As JJ Cohen and Bardiac and others said in the comments in the post below, this kind of thing is probably some of the most important work we do as academics.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

How wonderful! I'm glad you had a good time, too.

Karl Steel said...

Excellent and congrats! Wish I could have seen it.

Anonymous said...

I have had the opportunity to work with leaders throughout the corporate and political worlds. It never ceases to amaze me difference that these three simple steps can make for most people, regardless of talent level, natural communication ability, or leadership position, when it comes to public speaking.

Dr. Virago said...

Anon -- My title was a kind of a pun. I have over a decade of experience in "public speaking" -- I'm a professor. But I've never spoken to a general public (vs. my students or other scholars) before this. But thanks for the link to the advice, as it's always worthwhile to sharpen one's skills.