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» Performance

Stephen Hawking you ain't
I was an undergraduate, giving a talk at another college on observations I'd done on X-ray binary stars. This was the first time I'd ever spoken to an audience outside of class, of people I already knew, and my social anxiety was kicking in big time. I hadn't slept at all the night before, and by the time my advisor and I drove into the parking lot, I was running on fumes and sheer terror.

Other students presented their talks. I applauded politely, not listening to a word. It seemed the others had invested in arcane presentation aids like "slides" and "posters". I had planned to do it the old-fashioned way, just talking and occasionally waving my arm to emphasize what I was saying. If a chalkboard were available, I would draw on that.

There was no chalkboard.

My turn. I stumbled up to the stage, and proceeded to give the worst presentation on chromospherically-active binary stars in the history of astronomy. Anxiety tightened my vocal cords, driving my voice into dog-hearing range. As I was immensely fat at the time, the audience must have wondered why my college had hired a eunuch to present the material. I sweated through my clothes in seconds, leaving dark patches like a fake Shroud of Turin across my shirt. Every other word was jumbled or stumbled over, and I could only console myself with the thought that the row of professors in the back were too old to hear my high-pitched squeak.

To focus myself, I looked around for a friendly face, and found something like it to one side. She was a fellow undergraduate, slumped in a wheelchair and hanging on my every word. I started to direct my presentation to her, glancing over every time I lost my nerve. This didn't seem to please her. After a few minutes, she whispered to her friend, who rolled her out of the lecture hall--and I realized that she had thought I was staring at her because of her disability.

Well, that killed me. I muttered my conclusion and was treated to a round of--well, I couldn't even call it a golf clap. It was the sort of reception an artist at the Royal Variety Performance might have received for dropping his trousers onstage and farting God Save the Queen--no lack of sentiment, but a horrific misjudgement of presentation.

I can't even remember what my advisor said to me on the way back, but it sure as hell wasn't "don't worry, we've all been there". As far as I can tell, no one's ever been there.
(Sat 20th Aug 2011, 15:53, More)