How to be yourself

Today I had the pleasure of presenting a session on public speaking to the University of Exeter’s 2018 iGEM team. This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to work with these amazing interdisciplinary students and, as was the case last time, I was impressed with how passionate, insightful, and dedicated they are.

At the end of the session, after I’d run through my top ten tricks for public speaking, one of the students asked me a question about my second recommendation, ‘Be yourself’. Some background before I divulge her question: What I’d meant by that advice was, essentially, that there is no one way to be a good speaker, to be professional, or to be compelling. Therefore, no presenter should feel that they have to quash their mannerisms, significantly alter their vocabulary, avoid personal anecdotes, and so on. To constantly be monitoring and adjusting yourself in order to be something you’re not is to waste time, energy, and concentration that would, in my opinion, be much better used on the presentation you’re giving at that moment. I also think that being personable and ‘real’ can make you more accessible and allow you to foster engagement with the audience. I did, however, note that sometimes ‘being yourself’ means fidgeting at the podium or swearing a lot or going off on tangents, and perhaps it might be good to ‘tweak those little things’ so they don’t cause any distractions.

This was the point on which the student sought clarification. Where do you draw the line, she wanted to know, between the ‘little things’ and everything else? At first I tried to answer this with an example: I try to never say ‘uh’ or ‘um’, but I don’t rein in my occasional impulse to say ‘y’all’ or make a joke. That didn’t seem like the most satisfying response, but the more I tried to come up with subsequent examples, or a better explanation of the process I use to follow my own advice, the more I realised that this was actually a very profound question: Basically, Who am I? What makes me me? Which of my traits are inherent to my fundamental identity, and which are just bells and whistles?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question was asked by the only minority in the room, and as I stood there flailing for an answer, I realised just how very easy it is for me, a well-educated, white, middle class woman, to give that advice. However introspective I may be in my perpetual quest to know who I fundamentally am, and however challenging it may sometimes be to allow all the oddities of that person to manifest in public without worrying that I’m being judged, it’s still pretty darn easy for me to be myself without worrying about ramifications. That isn’t true for everyone. This week alone, I read a moving Twitter thread in which the author describes how she became ashamed of her Chinese heritage, and got goosebumps from the acceptance speech of N.K. Jemisin — a black woman whose work is inspired in part by the ‘structural oppression’ observed throughout human history — who received her record-setting third Best Novel Hugo. As these and other examples flashed through my mind, I began to grasp what a very complex piece of advice ‘be yourself’ really is–and the implications, both good and bad, of putting that wisdom into practice.

I knew I would not feel satisfied until I had an opportunity to properly acknowledge how justified that student was in pushing for better guidance, and to try to offer a more explicit explanation of, and expansion on, what I had been trying to communicate. It took me an hour to come up with the response which I have posted at the bottom of the page. I think is better than my first attempt but probably still falls short. I’m posting it here because I am grateful to have been asked the question in the first place, and to have been challenged to try to find an answer. I’m genuinely curious whether the question, and perhaps even the response, resonates with others–or perhaps you disagree and have better advice for the student; if so, I’d be keen to hear it.

I’m also posting my reply because the issues seems very timely. Just after the workshop ended, I got back to my desk to find this post on Twitter:

This was in response to a blog post about why a prominent birding event lacked parity of women and men speakers. Remember what I said above about how, as a well-educated white woman, I don’t face the same difficulties as some people in expressing my identity in public places? Well, that’s true, but even a privileged person like me can still face battles against discrimination, and, as a result, still be required to think long and hard about who we are and how we are and how we can ensure equal opportunities to unapologetically be those things. That is a freedom that should given regardless of skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or any other of the endless traits that we use to label and judge other people.

On the one hand, these characteristics matter because they are associated with a diversity of viewpoints that enriches all our lives; on the other hand, they are totally irrelevant because, at the end of the day, human beings are human beings–and deserve to be treated as such–regardless of how you describe or classify them. It is, as I said in the workshop, ultimately just a waste of time and energy to focus on tangential things that don’t fundamentally impact the main message: We are all legitimate, we all have valuable insights to share, we all matter.

My (overly lengthy) reply to the iGEM students:

Right now we seem to be having a social ‘moment’ in which we are finally paying more attention to who is able to have a platform and a voice, and what message is broadcast when we all have this opportunity—and that’s partly why I think it is so very important to be your genuine self; this is a real chance to introduce some fresh perspectives and ways of being into areas that have been devoid of diversity for too long (STEMM is definitely still struggling to be fully inclusive of women, POC, etc., so iGEM is a space in which these are not just hypotheticals).

At the same time, I realize that some people have more privilege in terms of how much they can get away with when being themselves. I am also aware that ‘being yourself’ intersects with ‘reading the room’ and ‘playing the crowd’. Everyone has expectations, assumptions, biases (including ones they aren’t aware of, ones that are subtle, ones that don’t seem ‘bad’), and this impacts how they respond to whatever version of ‘you’ you put forward. Most of us are a bit chameleon-y when it comes to social interactions, anyway, and adapt what we present depending on whom we’re addressing and under what conditions (e.g., how you are with your best friend vs your teacher, or with your teacher in the classroom vs your teacher after you’ve graduated, and so on). There is a spectrum of ‘you’ that you pick and choose from, and this includes what you say, how you talk, what you’re wearing, how sure you feel, and how confidently you present yourself. Depending on the parameters of a public speech, you will have chosen in advance where along the ‘you spectrum’ you think you should position yourself, and then as you engage with the audience during the event, you can modify that positioning depending on the responses you’re seeing and the feedback you’re getting.

My particular area of scientific expertise is animal communication, and perhaps as a result of this I am keenly aware of the dynamics of different communication interactions. When you ‘read the room’, you learn to get a sense of how different people will respond to different things, and you can use that to your advantage. You might call this ‘manipulation’ if you aren’t feeling very generous, but I prefer to think of it as simply being pragmatic and using all the tools at hand! If you learn to predict people’s expectations and biases, you can deliberately subvert them for an impactful / dramatic surprise, or you can use these to your advantage in order to ingratiate yourself and make people more open to your message. Whether or not you want to do either of these things (or both, or anything in between) will likely change dramatically depending on audience, setting, topic, etc. I suppose I am a little Machiavellian, but my personal feeling is that if people are not introspective enough to search out and address these biases in themselves, then I shouldn’t feel guilty for exploiting them—which, I should add, I do not do in a supervillain sort of way, or very often (well, not consciously, at least). Some examples:

  • I conducted a lot of my PhD field work in places where grumpy rich guys didn’t want some hippie tree-hugger intruding. When I went to negotiate access, I was not deliberately, overtly ditsy or flirtatious (yuck), but because I recognised certain assumptions about women and academics (and the fact that surely someone couldn’t be both at once), I also did not go out of my way to flex my intellectual muscles or present as anything other than a charming weirdo who happened to want to watch birds on their territory. You might say I was a sellout for not being unabashedly scientifically rigorous during those conversations, but you would also have to admit that I greased the wheels for collecting an awful lot of data and saved myself a lot of time in the process, so…
  • I don’t really have much of a regional accent, but every now and then it shows up—for example, I might pronounce ‘tire’ as ‘tar’ or say ‘I’ve been workin’ hard’ rather than ‘I’ve been working hard.’ Where I come from, these sorts of pronunciations are signs of being rural and/or working-class, and are often interpreted as indicating ignorance. Might I relax my attention and allow myself to speak that way in the middle of a science outreach presentation or a lecture? Sure. In a job interview? Probably not, because I don’t want people to be sitting there distracted, wondering where I’m from and whether I’m just a country bumpkin. I am in no way embarrassed of being from the country, mind, but in the middle of a job interview I want people focusing on my amazing responses rather than how I sound delivering them. However, if someone in that job interview were to say something derogatory about rural or working-class people, would I continue to ‘hide’ my origins? No way. I don’t want any job so badly that I’m not going to stand up for myself or pretend I’m a bigot.
  • You might have noticed today that I have a tattoo behind my ear. The studio where I got it done tried to talk me out of having it there, and in fact they have a policy against doing prominent tattoos like that on someone who doesn’t already have a certain number or positioning of tattoos; that’s because often employers and others will make assumptions about people with ink like that and will discriminate against them. There is a very specific reason why I wanted that tattoo in that location, so I wouldn’t take no for an answer; I still strongly feel that if someone is ignorant enough to discriminate against me because of my body art, then they don’t deserve to have me anyway. I aware that I’m privileged to be able to make that stand, and I’m glad that I can.

These are just a few of many examples I could give. The point  is that you have to figure out the boundaries of your own individual ‘you spectrum’ and then get a sense of how those boundaries may temporarily shift–or where within those boundaries you feel comfortable positioning yourself–under different circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you then have to be brave enough to really commit and own it, whatever ‘it’ is for you. (Oddly, this is advice my high school choir teacher used to give with respect to doing choreography during songs, and it’s true – even if the choreography itself is kind of lame, you personally will look less lame if you go for it 100% than if you just do a few lacklustre jazz hands. YouTube backs me up on this!)

The reason I have typed out this very longwinded response is that it can be difficult to commit, but real confidence and real freedom come from being able to do so–and, just to bring it back to the context of public speaking, this is also how you can differentiate and distinguish yourself from others rather than conforming and mimicking those who have gone before. I am 37 years old (!) and am still continually reminding myself to practice what I am preaching here, but I can assure you that life (and the delivery of presentations) gets easier when you get better at this. You would not be a part of the iGEM team if you weren’t brilliant, so even if you do need to tone down your gesticulating or learn to make natural eye contact while speaking, I hope you can see how those sorts of aesthetic things are just icing on the 100% brilliant you cake that is underneath (weird metaphor, but you get the idea).