Plus Minus – On screwing up a presentation

I gave a presentation at a small conference this weekend on an idea I have for trying to solve a really cool problem. The presentation went really well and conversations with other people at the conference helped me refine the idea and make me more confident about pursuing it. So the informal questions and discussion were great.

But the formal, in-front-of-everyone questions part of the presentation was kind of a disaster. Professor Scary Awesome asked me a question that I’d never thought about before. I initially thought I knew how to answer it. Then I figured out very quickly that I actually had no clue.  And then I found myself thinking out loud instead of stopping and saying, “Actually, I’m really not sure. I need to think about that.”



  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    It’s happened to everyone, as you know. Think of it as a rite of passage:

    Don’t beat yourself up over it, just try to do better if the situation comes up again:

    • Sarcozona says:

      I was really surprised that I answered so badly because I thought I’d already learned to field ‘hard questions.’ But I discovered that in certain kinds of situations (new, scary, with a dash of sleep deprivation) I need to learn them again, or remind myself of them before giving a talk in those circumstances.

  2. It’s really, really hard to stay cool in the face of Professor Scary Awesomes.  I have found that a lot of them remember their own screw ups in front of their generation’s Professor Scary Awesomes, though, so it’s all good in the end.

    Glad it went well except for that little hang-up!

  3. Jeremy Fox says:

    And although it’s hard, try not to think of the questioner as Prof. Scary Awesome. It’s just a *peer* (NOT a “professor”) asking you a question. Not that you’re aiming to come off as cocky–your answer shouldn’t convey, explicitly or implicitly, that you think of yourself as Student Scary Awesome and the questioner as Professor Overrated Moron. But in order to answer the question, you need to be focused on the question, not on who’s asking it.

    This is one area in which I think I’ve been helped over the years by my natural personality, and the ways in which my life experiences reinforced that personality. I’ve always been confident in my own intellectual abilities, and mostly pretty comfortable talking in front of an audience. Doing some theater as a kid and holding a couple of tour guiding jobs only reinforced that. Going to a small liberal arts college, where it was routine for profs and students to chat with one another informally, and as equals, helped a lot too. So while there’ve been times when I’ve been nervous, and times when I’ve answered a question badly, I don’t think I’ve ever fumbled a question because I was worried about who was asking it. I’m just not intellectually intimidated by anyone (*not* the same as thinking I’m smarter or better than anyone, of course–again “not intimidated” and “cocky” are two very different things).

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