Making it up as I go along

Until recently, I dreaded public speaking. Hated it, even. No-one told me, when I set out to become a scientist, that presenting my work in front of an audience would be expected. Being scheduled to give a talk, to immediate colleagues or to a conference audience, could ruin the day if not the entire conference. I still get anxious now, but I am not so disabled. I have a greater capacity to handle the unexpected.

This performance problem started to bother me seriously when my coping strategies began to hold me back. I had developed the habit of cutting a deal with collaborators: I’ll write the slides, if you present them. I do myself a disservice this way, because no one remembers my name in the acknowledgements section. Science loses, too, because sometimes I do not have a collaborator to hand, so my work stays in the shadows. Science only works if we share it.

I was frustrated. I had to fix this. Coaching, mentoring, taking courses, blogging, and reading books on the topic had brought me to a stage where I was able to bear it. Feedback on my most recent presentation was that it was fine, and maybe it was, but I had skipped the morning conference session to worry over my slides and spent lunchtime wondering where I could get hold of a whiskey to steady my nerves. The relief once the thing was over was so great that I remember nothing of the closing plenary. 

At this point, I saw two options: Toastmasters, or Improv. Toastmasters sounds dire. I added “Take an Improv class” to my to-do list. Last summer, one sleepless night in the wake of my marriage, several crises, and a house move, I thought “fuck this” and signed up for Level 1: Beginners Improv Course.

Gregarious friends commented on my courage when they heard what I had signed up for; a colleague remarked, when I confessed, several weeks in, “that’s going to make you a nightmare!” The thing is, I am alright with small groups – I like leading those. Hundred-person auditoria, though, with my work and hence me under scrutiny, make me panic. Improv was hard. Really, really hard. Statistics benefits from a thoughtful approach, one of the reasons I like it; some of my favourite blog posts are the most considered ones. Kudos, then, to Steve, who put a lot of work into making the studio a safe space for all of his students. I can forgive him for that one time he made me Improv statistical consulting.

Every Wednesday night after work, for eight weeks, getting to class meant some sort of mad scramble: a bus, two trains, a Diet Coke and a takeaway dinner. I would screech to a momentary halt in a theatre space above a bar in Moorgate. The door would shut on our Studio, and something would shift. Adulthood, and the news, and the turmoil I am fighting to heal from, would, somehow, be suspended. There is a distracting effortlessness about Improv which consumed all of my concentration. Within moments I would be crying with laughter over bizarre drama games. My dozen course mates and I stretched, swung our arms and swung each other around, sang, danced, crawled, and improvised our way through couples’ counselling, a cocktail party, a film set, and a flight to the moon. All in one evening, some weeks. Outside of class, we formed a WhatsApp group, a pub night, each others’ party guests; the following term, some of us were the loyal audience whilst others went on to perform. Improv was exhilarating, enriching, exhausting. I used to come home buzzing and unable to sleep until midnight. 

And, did it work? 

Erika and her Improv colleagues

Improv classmates with our tutor, Steve. And some Oreos.

Halfway through, I got offered a no-notice trip to Paris – a colleague pulled out of a conference at the last minute. I do not like travelling – it always feels taboo to admit that – and short-notice travel causes me particular problems. There I was, then, blinking at my boss’ suggestion. I’d just come back from a weekend away, as it happened, and here I was facing going abroad a day and a half later. I froze, processing how fast I would be able to turnaround my laundry from the weekend, and which meetings I could miss and which I would reschedule, and where was my passport, was there any chance it had gotten lost in the house move? I tried, and I tried, to find a reason why I should not take this opportunity. Then, I remembered the first rule of Improv. 36 hours later, I was being woken up at Gare du Nord by the security guard sweeping the Eurostar. Unsurprisingly, given the weekly mad scramble, the laundry that I had done through the night whilst I searched for my passport, then the day at the office, back to back, of course, with rescheduled meetings, I had fallen asleep on the train. 

Paris is not presenting, but when travelling, as when talking in public, you can plan all you like, and still know that you will be thrown a few curveballs. I’ll tell you about Paris, one day, if you ask me. I have presented since (in fact twice in one afternoon, once). So, I would say: Yes. It worked.

I took Level 1: Beginners Improv Course with Hoopla.

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