The Lies We Tell Ourselves

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I hate math.

I hate being a stereotype even more, but my feelings on math are so common that there exists an entire research niche dedicated to solving the math gender gap. Women make up only 15% of mathematics faculty – that’s a smaller percentage than any of the other STEM fields, including engineering and computer science. Why the under-representation? Do women, as one former Harvard University president suggested, simply lack the appropriate biological equipment to excel in math (nice hot take, Lawrence)? Maybe it’s a problem with the way American schools teach math (unlikely, since girls consistently earn higher grades in math classes at all levels of K-12 education).

More likely, there’s a cultural influence causing the disparity. The lessons start early; major retailers sell girls shirts that proclaim they’re “too pretty for math.” University students consistently evaluate female professors as less intelligent than their male counterparts. Men don’t want to date women who are smarter than them. But whatever explanation you want to pursue, it remains incredibly unlikely that 4 out of 5 American girls are just innately terrible at math.

I mean, I know I wasn’t. I did fine with arithmetic in elementary school – it wasn’t my favorite class, but it didn’t cause me to break out in hives, either. Learning to tell time, basic addition and subtraction, long division, memorizing multiplication tables…. No problems. I even remember thinking that long division, with its trails of handwritten numbers filling up half a notebook page, could be kind of fun.

A terrifying school marm in her natural habitat.

When I made the leap to middle school, however, things took a turn for the worse, and not just because of the looming disaster that was puberty. Math began to get…. abstract. Algebraic concepts were introduced to me by a teacher who I’m sure, in hindsight, was a lovely woman, but seemed to my twelve-year-old self like a cross between Nurse Ratchet and some sort of old-school, corporal punishment distributing nun. She wore slips. Sometimes she had lipstick on her teeth. But most horrifyingly, she expected me to complete expressions and show my work.

You see, like many other gifted & talented kids, I always skated by on talent rather than effort. Reading, writing, tap dancing – they all came easily to me. Teachers loved me. I was assigned to tutor other children.

So, when I came up against the roadblock that was pre-algebra, I had NO sense of how to sit down at home and work through the challenges presented by the curriculum. I’d never had to work like that before. This frustration was embarrassing, and I (as well as, I bet, many other students like myself) found a back door. I simply told myself I was no good at this. It had nothing to do my work ethic or study skills – I was simply BAD AT MATH, and scary Miss M. was just out to get me.

By the time I officially entered Algebra 1 in eighth grade, my self-taught Bad At Math mythos was entrenched. I planned my entire high school and college course schedules around the easiest possible math classes. When I took the GRE, 10 years after fuming my way through pre-algebra, I scored in the 13% percentile. (If you’re fluent in standardized testing terminology, that means 87% of test takers did better than me on the math section. I’m not proud.) And all of this because the idea of being challenged by a subject scared me, so I sold myself a fiction instead. In fact, the only reason I’m comfortable discussing this publicly is because I’m reasonably convinced that no one will ever again make me sit in a math classroom, so I can afford to be reflective.

Why the tangent on my relationships with math? Because, dear reader, when I tell you that a vast number of Americans have told themselves they are simply “bad at public speaking,” I want you to know that I’m not sitting in judgment.

I understand.

“The rest of the class failed to grasp the influence of postmodernism on Tina’s finger-painting, and that was the last time she felt excitement for a public speaking gig.”

But, just like I wasn’t born bad at math, VERY FEW people are born with some sort of hole where “public speaking talent” was supposed to be slotted in. Sure, some individuals have certain advantages – they automatically earn more respect because they might be taller or more attractive than average, or they are particularly extroverted and feel comfortable around people. These traits do not mean that short, nervous types cannot become amazing presenters. Think about how excited you were for show-and-tell in your kindergarten days! The opportunity to share your thoughts and experiences with an audience is exciting. And yet, somewhere along the way, most of us lose that enthusiasm.

Why?

Because speaking isn’t a talent, it’s a SKILL. A skill that challenges us to learn in ways we are not accustomed to, and challenging ourselves is inherently uncomfortable.

Maybe you had to do a group presentation that didn’t go so well, or you got so nervous before a presentation that you felt sick all day. We latch on to these negative experiences and tell ourselves that speaking is just like that, that we are no good at it.

Not gonna lie, I had to text a friend for a suitable #sports reference.

But one negative experience doesn’t testify to your lifelong potential as a presenter, any more than one bad game means Stephen Curry will never win another game of basketball.

The trouble is, if you only find yourself needing to present once a year, that is not much of an impetus to work on improving your skills, so many people continue to ignore or fear speaking. Obviously, that leads to more negative presentation outcomes, the speaker continues to believe they are untalented, and the vicious cycle continues. No one wants to spend time on things that they are not good at – that’s human nature. Unfortunately, these patterns keep us stuck in a rut, unable to admit our culpability in failure.

Our perception of speaking as an innate talent (rather than a learned skill) is compounded when we watch speakers who seem so effortlessly amazing on stage: their speech has humor and pathos, they barely glance at their notes, they sound confidant and polished, their slides are witty and relevant….

She did not, in fact, wake up like this.

If you’re a cosmetics user, however, you know that achieving the perfect “natural” look is NEVER effortless. It involves multiple products, adequate hydration, good tools, aggressive skincare…. Similarly, a good speaker can easily spend 30 or more hours preparing for a single presentation (this is how I get away with charging dollar$$ to make that process easier). You see that glossy final presentation, but you DON’T see the four prior drafts that the speaker threw out, or the hours of taping and listening to the talk, or the coaches, assistants, and designers who helped them reach this level.

Luckily, you don’t NEED to invest that much money into becoming a better speaker. A few smaller steps can make a dramatic difference:

  • Double or triple the amount of time you think you need to get ready for a talk.
  • Begin with a clear vision of what your audience (whether that’s a client, a boss, a teacher, or your peers) needs to get out of the talk to ensure maximum value – don’t confuse the audience’s needs for your wants as a speaker.
  • Write the talk out, even if it’s just in outline format. Nail down the argument before you start to focus on your delivery.
  • Charmingly request that your friend, roommate, or eternally-supportive significant other watches you rehearse. Being watched changes the way you present, and experiencing this for the first time on the day of the real-deal presentation can be…. Unpleasant. If you really are resistant to letting anyone watch you, tape or record yourself giving the whole presentation and do your best to objectively assess areas for improvement in your performance.

But above all else, scrap the idea that you just can’t do it, or that you’ll never be any good at this. Like any other skill, your public speaking abilities will improve with time and effort. If you promise me you’ll try to keep an open mind, I promise I’ll try to solve for X without breaking out in a cold sweat.

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