There is what is billed as a ‘true story open mic night’ run at The Storey Institute in Lancaster. It invites people with ‘real stories to tell’ relating to a specific theme each month to speak them to anyone who attends the session. Last month, the theme was ‘Love’. My Mother participated. She had written a wonderful piece about love from her view after the loss of my brother (her son), and it was incredibly moving. She claimed to have made a fool of herself, crying during the reading, but here’s the thing – she said it…out loud….to a bunch of strangers. From my perspective there are insufficient words to express my admiration and respect for what she achieved in telling her story; it was a remarkably courageous thing to do.
And here’s another thing. I have not yet done the same. Public speaking incorporating the loss of my brother has not yet featured, but I know it is coming. Writing is one thing – speaking is a whole other.
I have spoken at various conferences on many different subject matters. Experiences everywhere from Australia, to Lithuania, to London should have really cemented my confidence regarding speaking about research at small symposia and large multi-panel conferences by now. So, earlier in March this year, not thinking much about it, I forwarded an abstract for a Postgraduate Conference to be held in Manchester. Never mind the lack of primary data to discuss – the call for papers stated it welcomed ‘work in progress’, and the event theme is one of those that just ‘speaks’ to my interest. My proposal has been accepted and I’m due to present in June.
But in talking with my mother after her speech, I’ve suddenly realised, for all my PhD1 and Post-doc experiences, this time it most certainly is different. I’m pleased at the acceptance, but that does not annihilate the fear. It’s ‘a while’ since my last presentation at an event, but that’s not the issue. What is is the personal attachment I have to the topic. It is one thing to think through what you might say in your mind, or practice to yourself; it is quite another to talk about the suicide of your brother in the presence of other academic researchers. Will I be too emotional? Will I get overly protective/defensive of details? Will I be able to conduct myself professionally given the attachment? I’d like to give myself the benefit of the doubt with regard to the answers to these questions, but you can’t always anticipate all. This research topic, in a new discipline and chosen by me (not given in the form of attachments to other academic projects), is much more powerful and important than previous endeavours.
So here’s how I intend to approach this. I’m going back to the very basic of basics, PhD 101. I will approach this as though it is a very first post-grad speaking experience. I shall embrace the fear and the challenge. I am not supposed to be PhD level yet, (as, as we all know, a doctorate is about the journey to PhD, not starting at graduation point…), and the other delegates are to be viewed as (possibly equally apprehensive?) peers, not assessors. This is an opportunity for rehearsal, to help in the re-invention of my approach to academic speaking, to test how I can and want to talk about the personal and the academic in a balanced manner, in a new try-out ground. Looking at it all this way is far more helpful…I think.