On presentations

All master students have to do a literature presentation so I wasn’t exempted from that, even though I don’t have a background in the life sciences. It was a lot of fun but also quite stressful. After all, it was my first presentation in English and it was about a subject which I researched quite well, but I’ll never know as much as my audience does. In the end, everything turned out alright… but I’ve never been so nervous for a presentation.

You see, medical students at my university are literally drilled in doing presentations. Once in two weeks you needed to give a 30-minute  presentation about your group’s  ‘study assignment’ (a patient case and the theory connected to it). Presentations were graded, taking account things like ‘eye contact’, ‘body language’, ‘use of voice (inflection etc)’ — and there was also one item on which ‘content’ was scored. So, eventually, almost everyone became proficient or at least comfortable with giving a presentation in Dutch. For me, content was never a problem, but rather the ‘form’ – I’m usually quite nervous etc. So I got a lot of feedback and a lot of opportunity to try it, and most importantly, I got the experience so I knew I can do it (not perfectly, but I can do it) so that’s a great confidence booster.

However, when presenting in English, everything changes. Instead of being mindful of body language and how fast I talk and stressing important words, I’m thinking about grammar, sentence structure and pronunciation. English is really difficult in that aspect. For instance, compare the words ‘analysis’ and ‘analyze’. The stress is on a different syllable, even though the words are similar. So I manage to mess up and stress the wrong syllable – and then, halfway the word, I notice and I stop talking and think – what was I saying again?  The same goes for the ‘difficult to pronounce’ words – those words using sounds and sound combinations not encountered in Dutch (the th sound, the word ‘mechanism’ (ARRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH)) . Really, I’ve stopped and restarted a word countless times…

But… somehow, they liked the presentation. I felt like I’d done a horrible job. I actually felt rather awful. And yet, several people whose opinion I value, came to me and told me in private that they really thought it was good and interesting and etc.

Apparently, everyone apart from the people in my curriculum, really only care about the content. They are used to people stuttering in English, they are used to people not knowing which word to use – — because we (Dutch people) are all in the same boat regarding our language skills. So they have learned to disregard the form and listen to what the person is actually saying instead HOW.

And that was an important revelation for me. Yes, I really need to improve my English presenting skills (sorry, didn’t watch enough TV series without subtitles, like my husband and no I didn’t know that disguise isn’t pronounced like dis-gweeze) – but perhaps our curriculum has gone too far in only grading form and not content?

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One Comment on “On presentations”

  1. Marre says:

    I think it’s not a bad thing that you’re trained to make the form as good as possible, but indeed, when people are just interested in WHAT you have to say, they won’t even notice that you mess some words up (unless the entire presentation is not understandable anymore, or when you use the same word in every sentence, or something like that).
    By the way, it’s a known phenomenon that are brains like to think in patterns so much that we often don’t hear it if there are small pronunciation or grammatical or whatever kind of mistakes in a sentence. Most of the time, you will be the only one who notices. And I know the feeling: you felt like you did a terrible job, but the listeners didn’t even hear all those struggles. 😉


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