On Tuesday this week my university held its annual History Undergraduate Dissertation Conference. It was a lovely day in which we could show off our projects to our course mates. postgraduates and members of staff in an informal setting. To add some excitement to the proceedings there were three forms in which we could present our research, a poster, 3 minute soapbox or 10 minute presentation, the best of each category winning a prize at the end of the day.
I really enjoyed hearing about everyone’s projects. It’s amazing that within a group of 27 students interests can be so varied, covering everything from modern political history to early modern medicine, from Victorian funerals to 1960s popular culture. There was also a mix of geographical locations being studied. Often I feel that at undergraduate level we are limited by our access to predominately British sources, but thanks to the digitizing of sources from other countries and different approaches/perspectives this is changing.
Although I’m enjoying my research and love talking the ears off those who ask about my dissertation topic, the conference was daunting to me. I’m not a public speaker. Sure I can dream about giving that perfect lecture one day, strolling about in front of a project screen with a clicker in my hand, but the reality is much different. Red face, shaky hands and wavering voice.
Why then, did I choose to present my work as a ten minute presentation?
My reasoning was simple, I’m proud of what I’m doing and I felt a ten minute presentation was the best way to showcase my work. I knew that no matter how much I prepared (and believe me, I was sooo prepared), I would face the same problems I always do when it comes to public speaking. But I needed to know that I could do it.
To push me even further out of my comfort zone, shortly before my allocated time slot my supervisor made a terrifying suggestion. I should step out from behind the desk during the presentation, to engage the audience and remove the barrier between me and the rest of the room. Now I don’t know about anyone else, but a barrier between myself and the audience is a great thing. It helps to hide vulnerability and provides a sturdy object to hold for fear of passing out (over exaggeration).
But to my surprise, I stood away from the desk. I may have had a hand on the edge of it for the majority of the time, but I did it and survived. It wasn’t a brilliantly polished presentation, I stumbled over my words a few times, and the wavering voice, shaking hands and red face were ever present, but afterwards they were joined by a sense of achievement. Regardless of whether I won or not, the level of personal achievement that day was so huge that I would go home happy.
Now as it turns out, I did win! My presentation on County Meath shared the top spot with another about regulation of men in the EIC, and I couldn’t have been more proud. In fact, I’m still riding the high, which is why I have been able to write such a self indulgent post.
I promise normal service will resume tomorrow!
But if I ever need a nudge to do anything challenging, different or new again, I can always look back to the conference and at what can happen if I just take that little step away from the desk.