Flavor: Giving a (research) talk.

1. What’s going on mathematically?

I’ve been asked to give a talk about my research. After preparing (see Preparing a research talk) for a day or two, eventually I’m standing in front of a quiet room and have just been introduced.

2. What is the emotional and logistical context?

The room is quiet and everyone is looking at me. I may be very nervous, mildly nervous, or not nervous at all. Then I start talking.

3. What thoughts are there?

The mathematical story I start telling is always very integrated with the slides I’m showing, or the material I’m writing on the board. The visuals guide my thoughts, which are translated into explanations and narrations. The translation of my mathematical thoughts to words requires some thinking about the audience, what they might or might not know, what I’ve already said to them, what they’re probably thinking about now. There are also occasional flashes of thoughts that snag on random and inconsequential details during the experience, like I find myself thinking about the color of the board, or where my right hand is, or the sound of a certain word.

4. What quality of awareness?

This is a very, very absorbed state, with little self-awareness. Time doesn’t seem to flow, although I occasionally glance at the clock to notice that it is later than before. I often feel like just a conduit for my thoughts to be spoken, and end up speaking every single thought that enters my awareness (for better or for worse). I feel comfortable but not free, not in control, not myself. My awareness is heightened to an unsustainable level, perhaps like I’m being attacked or about to crash a motorcycle.

The self-awareness I do have is usually about my body movement and tone of language. I wish I was aware of and able to control my eye movement, but I haven’t been able to train myself to do this; I don’t even know where I look, let alone know if I should change where I look.

My level of self-awareness is correlated in an interesting way with my distance from the board/slides versus the audience. The closer I move to the audience, the more I’m aware of being a human who is communicating using body language and eye contact in addition to speech. As I move towards the board/slides, it’s like I get submerged in my own internal monologue.

5. What emotions?

Personally, I enjoy giving talks, and performing generally. I enjoy the adrenaline. During the talk, I’m not very aware of my feelings, except to notice that I feel high on adrenaline. After the talk, I’m always relieved.

6. What does it resolve to, after how much time?

The talk ends and there are questions. During the questions I’m only slightly more aware of my body language and eye contact, and maybe start to feel more mixed emotions (happiness if the talk went well, or frustration if it didn’t). But the heightened awareness and absorption continues. After the questions, I just want to go be by myself and not think about math.

7. How frequent is this flavor?

Every few months.

8. What are good/bad ways to change or follow it up?

Since the experience itself is so singularly focused, I think it’s a good idea to sort of debrief myself afterwards. How did it go? I always tell myself that I should’ve been more mindful of eye contact, but of course there are other ways that the talk could’ve been improved. Giving a talk is an art form, that only improves with practice and reflection (if it improves at all). It’s healthy to acknowledge some successful aspects and some unsuccessful aspects. And there are usually mathematical follow-ups to pursue, from the questions and comments.

There are always imperfections in the performance, and it’s useless to dwell on them. Gandhi said something like: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote the freedom to make mistakes.”


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