Two years after graduation from my doctoral program, a friend invited me to give a grand rounds presentation at a major university. Despite the fact that I was guaranteed a sympathetic audience and a topic I knew (it was whatever I wanted to speak on), I found myself reluctant to respond and even going to some length to avoid my friend. Generally being self-aware, this behavior puzzled me as much it constrained me. The avoidance was not worry about public speaking – that type of anxiety had long expired with my role as an instructor and professor.
I teach research methods and statistics, so I would go as far to say that bored looks and blank faces actually excite the challenge of engagement within me. Moreover, even if it were social anxiety, my role as a psychotherapist gave me several effective treatments for that. When I thought about the opportunity to talk about my own thoughts and observations, it seemed as though those topics that interested me in psychotherapy suddenly could never appeal to others, those research skills I sharpened in graduate school became dull and astigmatic, and those in my imagined audience were motivated to skewer me on my ignorance and roast me over the coals of their knowledge and experience.
When the grand rounds schedule was announced and my spot was left “To Be Determined,” my indecision came to the attention of one of the faculty at the university. He electronically pulled me aside and gave me perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of advice I have received: “Never turn down the opportunity to give a talk.” While I (and he) may be psychodynamic in orientation, we both appreciate the utility of behavioral interventions, and his suggestion propelled me up in front of that audience a few weeks later.
But I imagine that there are many other early career psychologists (ECPs) who experience the same inhibition when it comes time to demonstrate what we know and think in a talk. What might drive this reticence, and why might the advice I received be so advantageous for us as a population of ECPs?
Why Are We Underwhelmed By Our Thinking, Findings, and Accomplishments
Often as psychologists we tend to be underwhelmed by our own thinking, findings, and accomplishments. It is part of our training as scientists and scholars to approach everything with skepticism and to value novelty in opinions and ideas. Our newest doctors are the most likely to endorse this mindset, fresh from imprinting in graduate school and with less experience either to disconfirm these maxims or to employ them more flexibly.
In terms of skepticism, graduate school makes us aware that any epistemology or investigation always has limitations and things to criticize, and sometimes we fear that lens of scrutiny will turn on us. We were taught confidence intervals, not confidence. In terms of originality, we come to believe knowledge is ever expanding, demanding constant novelty and innovation. Paradoxically, science at the same time requires tedious and meticulous replication, although this tenet is somehow second class to originality. If we follow a tradition or a paradigm, we are made to feel less smart for it, even if we came to agree with that way of thinking through a sophisticated decision process.
Finally, ECPs are still accustomed to the role of student as opposed to one who produces and professes knowledge. We expect examination and evaluation and are not surprised when we are told our work is not good enough to stand alone and be independent. Speaking on our own opinion is then understandably anxiety-producing, made worse by the better psychological training we received! When we hear equally intelligent and experienced professionals from other fields speak, we are impressed by the way they seem unencumbered by the same inhibitions we ECPs have about expressing opinions. Training in other fields often treats knowledge much more as a tool than a process, which may account for some of the differences in our confidence as ECPs.
Scientific training might be one of the reasons for our inhibition to present, an anxiety which the advice to never turn down a talk might lessen through exposure. However, at the same time our doctoral education is our greatest asset. A doctorate in hand combined with anxiety about what you know is the sign of a good psychologist.
Socrates, perhaps the earliest career psychologist, was thought to have said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Our worry over the knowledge and observations we have to present is actually the questioning and discernment that a degree in psychology offers. It means that the observations and work you have to offer most likely come from a place of good judgment and, as such, will be appreciated for their soundness. We should all be so fortunate to have that worry before a presentation!
Not turning down the opportunity to talk is the chance to think deeply about an observation, phenomenon, or connection between phenomena that we have noticed. Thinking is hard to do but easy to avoid, even for psychologists who have extensive training in empirical investigation and who employ these methods every day to help patients. Preparing a talk forces us to clarify our thoughts in order to transmit them to others. We first need to re-earth our own assumptions in thinking about a topic because we are aware our audience may not hold the same starting beliefs.
Presenting then is an exercise in mentalization, bringing audience members with you to a conclusion in a progressive, stepwise fashion. Often our assumptions are now forgotten, so automatic and embedded through experience, that when we uncover them we see that our intervening experiences have reaffirmed them (eliciting a sense of pride in how much we have learned in our training), or have disconfirmed them, which becomes an interesting catalyst for a talk in and of itself. In moving from our starting assumptions, we can use the research skills we acquired in doctoral training to sift through the literature, contextualize and contrast our observation with what is known, and direct our thinking to areas that a critical reading shows need examination. The literature search then builds a meaning structure for the origin, nature, and significance of the observation or investigation about which we will be speaking. Often when we are in the midst of our research or clinical work as ECPs, busy as we are, we miss the opportunity to reflect on why what we do is valuable and worthwhile. This benign neglect of our own importance also is a contributor to the anxiety we experience in being asked to speak about our work, and in taking the advice to explain our efforts to an audience we are compelled to be made aware of why we do those important things we do.
Conquering Anxiety over Self-Worth as a Psychologist
Presentation is a great opportunity to conquer this anxiety over self-worth as a psychologist, as it is a more forgiving medium to deliver your thoughts compared to others like writing. I often prefer to present my work to help me with the daunting task of organizing my thoughts before I begin writing. Speaking is more interactive, is less exacting, and is often time-limited, whereas writing is in isolation of your reader, is fixed and precise, and is (depending on your degree of perfectionism) interminable. Being in front of an audience, you receive immediate feedback on how well you have conveyed a point or how clear your own thinking might be. In this way, you often receive a second chance to explain yourself and can modify your way of understanding your topic in dialogue with the audience.
Writing, on the other hand, demands an order of precision not required in a talk because you will not be present with your reader to eradicate confusion. In relation to the time-limited nature of speaking, when your talk is advertised to a general audience it is assigned a clear start and end. You know by when you must finish your preparations and you know any anxiety in the process will at some point will terminate, making the worry more controllable. Writing is not always subject to the same time constraints. Unless you are beholden to others, you may pour over drafts or run over deadlines because the process has less of an artificial end – if you were in any way like me, imagine your dissertation process!
We ECPs should not feel so anxious in front of an audience because our recent doctorate indicates an intimacy with the most recent developments in psychology. Senior career psychologists, allied professionals, and laypersons in the audience may have more and varied experience, but ECPs are more likely to be connected to the current literature at least by virtue of their more recent training, if not by their personal recognizance. Presenting then a review of a topical area or a personal take on an exciting study conducted by others can be an acceptable outlet to present, as it is likely to be bringing something new to the audience that they have not had occasion to pursue. The recency of training for an ECP often equalizes presenter and audience together as life-long learners, and everyone is one’s own professor in that classroom. As a presenter and giver of observations, the ECP is a stimulus to which others respond. In my observation this is often the case – I rarely get through the material I prepared because the discussion often leads in intriguing new directions.
Speaking as a Service to Our Profession
Speaking is an opportunity we should take up as ECPs because it is a service to our profession. Being an ECP comes with involvement in academic groups and professional and scientific societies, like Division 29. These organizations often rely on volunteer speakers to achieve their programmatic missions to promote education and outreach, attract new members, and foster relationships among their members. In following the advice to never turn down a talk, you are likely to earn the gratitude of the person organizing the event at which you are presenting.
Not surprisingly, it is difficult to find psychologists who will take time out of their busy schedules to prepare and deliver a professional talk. Similarly, members of these organizations who will attend your talk understand the volunteer nature of most presentations, and based on the psychology of attribution this fact should be anxiety-reducing for you. Attendees come to expect variability in quality of these talks, which primes the self-handicapping phenomenon from social psychology: If you excel in your talk, the audience will esteem you higher; if you perform less well, the listeners are unlikely to fault you. Awareness of the volunteer nature of these talks also promotes the realization among audience members that they too were in the pool to be selected to speak and it could have been them up there. Knowing how difficult it is to prepare a talk, they are more likely to experience empathy for you. Finally, you and your audience both recognize the sampling method for selection to speak is not a random process – the mere fact you were selected to talk means you have already been singled out as special in some way.
Lastly, accepting the opportunity to speak as an ECP has its direct rewards. Upon completion, your presentation can make you feel accomplished in your thoughts and what your doctoral training allowed you to create. You will receive gratitude for your effort and your outreach, often impacting the thinking of those to whom you have finished speaking. Your presentation can also turn into a formal paper, and the feedback from the audience can help “workshop” the project into an improved version.
Importantly, giving a talk can create and foster relationships. Speaking engagements are a type of professional networking. You might receive referrals for a psychological area in which you have now marked yourself as expert or you might find collaborators and like-minded others to continue your work and thinking in the topic presented. Lastly, speaking can lead to other invitations to give another talk. Knowing the possible origins of some of our presentation anxiety as ECPs and some of the benefits of overcoming this anxiety by speaking, hopefully we all can take the advice to “never turn down an opportunity to talk.”
Cite This Article
McCarthy, K. S. (2014). Never turn down the opportunity to give a talk. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 49(2), 27-30.