Owlbears and stage fright

This week, I was at a conference – an academic conference, mind you. I was presenting my research to experts in my field. Conferences are exhilarating, but they are terrifying as well. They involve a great deal of socializing, networking, and of course, public speaking. For someone who generally practices none of these activities in her day-to-day life, you can imagine that I suck at all of these tasks. I could be worse, and I certainly imagine myself to be worse, but socializing, networking, and public speaking all scare me to death. Plus I have to travel long distances (i.e. fly) to most conferences, including this one, so I feel like I’m Indy in a pit of snakes.

The most anxiety inducing aspect was undoubtedly the presentation. In their infinite wisdom, the conference organizers placed me directly after one of the luminary figures in my field, who was also presenting at the conference. I was already a basket case – and now she was going to present and it would be, at best, a tough act to follow.

By the time her presentation began, I was shaking. I was scribbling nonsense on my scrap paper. I had gone to the bathroom three times, gone for a walk, and babbled to the session moderator about how much I’d practiced. The moderator smiled politely, letting me gush about how I had my presentation available on two USB keys, email, and a laptop, with correct adaptors and power supply, etc., so even if this copy didn’t work I surely had one that did and could I test my sound please…

Once the session began, though, I was bound in my chair, immobilized and forced to watch my panic rise and fall over and over like a sadistic roller coaster. Thank God lunch was staying down. I kept repeating my CBT training – if I panic, I panic, I’ve done it before. I will still present, so help me God, if I panic. I can do that. Oh God panic. Doesn’t matter. It simply is there, and it will go away, yep, look at it go away, down down down and down and UP oh GOD I’m presenting fuck all bugger fuck.

I scratched through my scribbling pad.

It was then that I began to write down a word in large letters, slowly and carefully. It had been supplied to me by my wonderful partner Patrick the previous night. People always say: oh, think of everyone in underwear. But as everyone who has ever tried that knows, that really doesn’t help. But Patrick had a better idea. I heard him saying it as I formed the word on the pad: OWLBEARS. Imagine a little owlbear peering over people’s shoulders.

This was sheer brilliance.

For those who don’t know, owlbears are a Dungeons and Dragons beast, with the body of a bear and the head of an owl. Why did this strange creature come to mind? Because of Wil Wheaton and Tabletop.

The previous evening, Patrick and I rewatched an episode of Tabletop, specifically the one where they play Lords of Waterdeep, a board game that we both love. Even more exciting is that Patrick Rothfuss was playing, and Felicia Day, and Brandon Laatsch. What a stellar combo! (Watching people play board games over the internet might sound dull, but until you try it, don’t rule it out.) In this game, a quest card shows up: Domesticate Owlbears. OWLBEARS. DOMESTICATED. THE WORLD IS AWESOME.

Anyway, cue the Tabletop editors throwing a billion images of owlbears into the rest of the episode. Owlbears over shoulders. Owlbears censoring middle fingers. Owlbears not being harmed in the making of this episode…You get the idea. But OWLBEARS!

As I wrote this down, I began to smile. Smiling is the best cure for any bad feeling. Even a fake smile (no really, there’s research). But an owlbear smile is always a real smile.

So I watched a little owlbear peer over the shoulder of a distinguished academic and make googly eyes at her keyboard. I watched an owlbear peek at me over the moderator’s shoulder as I began to talk. And I watched a team of owlbears pile on a very irritating and disturbing loud talker during a presentation later in the day. Owlbears hung out with me all day at the conference, and gave me a smile.

So I’m writing this to say thank you. Thank you so much to Wil Wheaton, and to the editors of Tabletop. You saved a terrified young academic from stage fright, and have undoubtedly improved every future conference I attend. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for easing my anxiety. I’m spending less time worrying about how I did, or catastrophizing about the future, and more time feeling confident and focused, in the company of a band of owlbears.


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