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Overcoming obstacles at Three Minute Thesis

by Jackie Brown

My fear of public speaking began when I was 10 years old. In Grade 4 we all had to give speeches and I was chosen by my peers to represent our class at the speech competition for all students in Grades 4 to 6. But when it was my turn to talk at the competition and I was in front of all of those beady little pre-teen eyes I absolutely blanked. I ran off the stage and ever since then I have been petrified of public speaking.

Now, I am a 23-year-old graduate student and aspiring researcher, developing innovative ways to improve child nutrition across the globe. This means that my future career will require me to speak in public, whether I want to or not. Even though I've grown up quite a bit from the 10-year-old girl who ran off the public speaking stage, I often still feel like her whenever I am in front of a crowd. The nerves, fears, and anxieties are still very, very real.

Which is why I signed up for the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) event here (with A LOT of coercive pressure from my supervisor). Not only would the 3MT force me to face my fears of public speaking by explaining my 100+ page thesis in less than 180 seconds, but it would also give me the opportunity to be coached by staff at the university to help reduce those fears too. And goodness was those coaching sessions helpful! I went to two group coaching sessions led by Karen Martin, who did an amazing job of getting us outside of our own heads through improv exercises. Improv was wonderful because it makes you think on the fly and also helps you to stop taking yourself so seriously - something us aspiring researchers excel at! I also went to two individual consultations where I received helpful feedback on my slide and my presentation itself. All of these experiences helped me to actually feel confident going into the 3MT!

On the day of the competition, I was naturally nervous but overall feeling better than the usual. I knew my stuff, having rehearsed it in the shower, the car, and to my dog for what felt like a thousand times. I had some lovely friends and supporters in the crowd who were there to cheer me on which made me feel confident when I headed up on stage. And when I hit that stage I delivered my pitch with clarity and enthusiasm landing me into the finals the next day. For once I had actually felt pretty good being up on stage in front of people! You can watch my presentation during the heats at the top of the page.

I came home that afternoon full of happiness and pride that I had not only delivered a good 3MT i.e. I didn't run off the stage but also that I had placed in the finals!

Then disaster struck.

I found out later that afternoon that my grandfather, who had been quite sick since November, had fallen extremely ill with another infection. I felt all of the emotions that evening, sad and scared at the prospect of losing my grandfather, but also knowing that tomorrow I had to face my fear of public speaking again.

The day of finals, I knew I could have chosen to not participate in the 3MT to be with my family. But my grandfather, being an academic himself and one of my greatest supporters, wanted me there. After all, I had worked so hard on my 3MT he would've hated for me to waste that in order for me to spend an extra hour or two with him. Regardless, I felt like a complete emotional wreck for the finals. I arrived at school feeling like I could burst into tears at any moment, sad about my grandfather and scared about speaking. My head was not in the game the way it had been yesterday.

Waiting to head on stage the MC introduced me and the "fun" fact that I had white water rafted the Nile that summer. At that moment it felt like a great analogy to public speaking. Both are exhilarating and full of uncertainties. You're barreling down the river, hoping and trusting that you won't capsize. When I got up on that stage I prayed that I could keep it together and just make it through my pitch.

But then I fell out of the raft.

I totally blanked about halfway through - my brain completely shut down! I stood there in front of the crowd for a good 10 seconds, just staring back at them and saying absolutely nothing. My supervisor gave me an encouraging "you got this" smile and with that, I was able to hop back in the raft and finish off my pitch. Given my blunder, and the fact that every single finalist was amazing, I didn't place in the top three but I was just proud of myself for making it that far and giving it my all. I knew my grandfather was too.

There are many things the 3MT taught me. The first is that failure is inevitable if you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. My worst fear came true during the 3MT finals: I totally blanked. But what was most important was that I was able to dust myself off and finish the talk. No more running off the stage for this girl! The second is that life sometimes just whacks you really, really hard with a big ol' bag of bricks and you have to learn how to cope. My grandfather falling ill was an unexpected and heartbreaking variable that I had to deal with during the 3MT finals but I still made it through without combusting into tears (on stage… I did before and after the 3MT in my car). The last lesson the 3MT taught me is that you can never face your fears from the sidelines, you’ve got to jump in the raft to do it. I'm proud of myself and the 22 other 3MT participants for having the courage to hop in the raft and barrel down the terrifying rapids of public speaking with me.