Career Stories

Trial by Fire… Alarm

I spent much of my early life terrified of public speaking. The thought of being the center of attention, acting on stage, or talking to a group of people filled me with primal dread. But at the MIT AI Lab, my place of employment in the 1980s, we did research. We reported on research by writing papers, and sometimes research papers were presented at conferences. One year it fell to me to present a paper at a robot conference.

Because I was terrified I sought instruction about how to give a good talk. And, as always, my boss, Tomas Lozano-Perez gave me some great advice. He said, “People can either read your slide or listen to what you’re saying—not both. But they can look at a picture and listen at the same time.” I resolved to make my talk almost entirely pictures.

I have a friend who is very comfortable with public speaking. I once attended a talk of his where he spent his first few seconds at the lectern finishing drawing the figure he was about to present. Not me. My terror of public speaking made me prepare extensively before hand. I completed my figures and notes far in advance of the conference and I rehearsed repeatedly. Still, I was thoroughly stressed in the hours before my talk.

Then it began. The session chair introduced me and I began speaking. I was nervous but things were going pretty smoothly; all my rehearsing was actually paying off. Until my mouth started to get dry. In my inexperience I hadn’t prepared for this commonplace of speaking. A bold (should I say, normal?) person might simply have asked someone to bring a glass of water. That solution didn’t even occur to me. But I noticed that a previous speaker had left about half an inch of water in the bottom of a cup setting on the lectern. I thought, “If I want to go on speaking, I’ll have to risk disease.” I drank the water.

I was getting almost comfortable. The pictures were working, they supported the concepts nicely and the audience seemed attentive. Then suddenly, at almost exactly the halfway point in my talk, the conference center’s fire alarm went off. The PA system instructed conference goers to leave the building. Somewhat stunned I watched as everyone started to leave, then I followed. But fate was only toying with me. After only a few minutes the all clear was given.

Having an audience made me ill-at-ease, a big audience even more ill. Still, as I walked back to the lectern, I found myself hoping that my listeners would return. And despite having a perfect opportunity to skip out, almost everyone did. I finished the talk without further interruption and got a great round of questions.

My experience is not one I would have wished for myself—or anyone else for that matter. But it had a very positive result. Since my trial by fire (alarm) I’ve had no problem speaking about robots in public. I’m ready for any size audience any time.