Monday, August 03, 2009

Can't get much worse than this: soaking my shorts before my 1st conference talk. Other bad experiences?

Well, I was talking with some people recently about someone who had a bad experience giving their first talk at a scientific conference. And so I said - you think that is bad - how about this? And I told them the story below. But before telling the story I am asking here for others to post comments about the worst thing that has happened to you during a talk at a scientific conference/meeting. Please fire away.

OK - so my talk. It was 1995. The SSE (Society of the Study of Evolution) meeting was in Montreal. And somehow I was going. I am not sure anymore how I ended up registering for the meeting. I do remember other evo-grad students who were or had been at Stanford like David Pollock, Joanna Mountain, maybe David Goldstein, maybe Sally Otto, Sarah Cohen, and a few others were going. And so I registered, got accepted to give a talk on the "Evolution of RecA" and made plane reservations to get to Montreal.

I arrived the night before my talk, found my dorm room on the McGill campus, and then went wandering around town for the Jazz Festival which was going on that night. After staying out pretty late, I got back to my room and had a bit of a panic attack when I looked at the schedule and found that the session in which I was talking started at 8:30 in the morning the next day and I did not have an alarm clock, nor was there one in my room. (I note, fortunately I was using real slides and could not spend the night modifying my talk in the way I do now with Keynote/PPT). Anyway - I pretty much knew I would sleep late without some work and so I made some notes with my room # and a plea to others to bang on my door if they could by 6:30 or 7 AM and I slipped these under the other doors in the hall. Fortunately in some ways, I barely slept b/c I was so scared of missing my first talk.

So at 6:30 AM or so I headed out to the conference area. I think I got some coffee and then headed to the room where my talk was to be. Nobody was even there so I wandered around for a bit and came back and the projectionist was there getting the room set up. When I said I was one of the speakers - he said "Are you planning on doing any side by side slides where you need two projectors?" Well, I had not thought of doing this, but now that he mentioned it, it sounded perfect b/c the main point of my talk was that the phylogenetic trees of RecA and rRNA were very similar to each other (see my 1995 J. Mol. Evol. paper on the topic here), supporting earlier suggestions by Lloyd and Sharp that RecA was a potentially useful phylogenetic marker. So I said "sure" and proceeded to load up two slide carousels for my talk. We checked them out and all looked good.

As the room started to fill up (I recall there were a lot of people interested in the "Molecular Evolution" session I was in) I decided to go grab a seat (in the far back on an aisle - I was a lurker even before blogging from meetings) and try to relax. I think I was the fourth talk and while speaker #3 (Michael Purugganan) was getting started I got nervous about the side by side slides so I went over to ask the projectionist if all was OK and he said it was. Alas, someone had grabbed my seat when I was up. I saw a table in the back back of the room with some misc. fliers on it so I went there to sit down for a few minutes and try to relax. And here was the trouble.

The table was also being used to hold some pitchers of water for people. And alas, someone had just spilled an entire pitcher of water on the table and I did not notice. I sat in the puddle. And there I was, in my tan shorts, now dripping wet. Minutes before my first talk. Looking like I had gotten a bit too nervous. Underwear showing through. As I desperately looked around to borrow a sweatshirt from someone to tie around my waist, the chair said "And our next speaker is Jonathan Eisen ...". Holy Crap. I was on.

So I went up there and I had thought to myself to crack a joke about just getting in from a swim. Or something. But as I still do, I entered another zone for my talk and forget everything but the talk. And so - there I was - dripping wet in my see through shorts - turning around and pointing to the screen talking about RecA as though all was fine.

Only when I was done with the talk did I re-remember that I was basically doing a "wet-shorts" contest for all in the audience. Yay. I can say truthfully that when I start to worry about things going wrong in talks, I remember this one and say "well, it could be worse ..."


  1. I sure hope you were wearing purty panties that day.

    I've had the luck the past two years at meetings to become quite ill shortly before my talks. Last year at Botany in Vancouver I got a migraine and was proud to not have vomited in the middle of my methods. This year at Evolution in Idaho I got a sinus/ear infection (on top of what ended up being a tick-borne illness from fieldwork) and couldn't hear a durn thing during my talk.

    By virtue of competing in speech and debate from middle school to college, though, I know all the really bad performances of my life are behind me.

  2. Oh brother, Jonathan, you give a stomach ache just reading this. I can certainly regale you with my conference talk snafus and I have a list of them. In fact, that makes my stomach hurt so much I think I would rather forget it all! It's very nice to know that such things didn't happen just to me :-) (small comfort to you I'm sure!)

  3. I loved your story. It's a good thing your enthusiasm triumphed over the soaked shorts. A lesser presenter would have been overwhelmed, I think.

    A couple of years ago I was attending (though not presenting at) a conference, and through a series of unfortunate mistakes wound up committing multiple insults to decorum. Suave? Not so much.

  4. Great Story! I was speaking in Montreal quite some time ago giving 2 presentations. I get to the first one and they only had slides for my second talk. This was before memory sticks so there I was, speaking to the audience with a copy covered in handwritten note in front of me and describing what they might have seen! Arghhh. I always carry memory sticks everywhere I go. Got nice feedback though and people did seem to pay attention!

  5. what about having the guy presenting before you that explains that what you used as a control group is inappropriate, and that all your interpretations are thus false?

    Hopefully for me, I was the guy presenting before...

    J Colomb

  6. I got selected to give a talk at ICAAC, which is a pretty big deal. Then I got selected for a press interview which is even a bigger deal. However, I got west nile virus the week of the conference and ended up looking like a dead person while giving my talk. The best I could do was to not face-plant into the floor. Needless to say I didn't get too many questions and I think most people didn't think I knew what I was talking about. The press interview was even worse. The woman interviewing me mostly commented on how sick I was, asked a couple of easy questions and told me to go get rest. The interview aired at about 4:00 AM on the radio Christmas day, which was the most merciful thing to do with it short of burning it.

  7. My first full-fledged talk at an international scientific conference came about six months after joining a biotech company in the '80's. My collaborators and I did some great work and had just submitted patent applications and a paper to Cell. I was invited to speak by one of the organizers of the conference in his session.

    I was nervous and stayed up practicing the night before. I think I was third on the roster for the session and another more senior investigator working in a similar field for a different biotech company was to speak on a different topic just before me. He gave most of his talk and then for the last ten minutes of the talk described how he would speak about some recent work in the lab on another topic....mine!

    He proceeded to essentially show all the data that I was going to show in my talk. He used different cells to clone the same gene I was describing and characterize the very same effects which showed it could have potential as a drug. I was almost too devastated to get up when it was my turn - but I did and gave as flawless a talk as I could. I was ticked, but gracious to the organizers (who did not know he was going to do that).

    Long story the end our work received the patent and was published in Cell. So I guess he got the little prestige he could for his work while he could get it.

  8. Oh, hilarioooooous Jonathan. That just made my morning. :)

  9. My first conference talk was as a graduate student. I was attending a local ASM meeting in Newport, OR.

    And, after weeks of practicing and practicing gathering cool pictures, and making all kinds of cool slides,


    .....forgot my slides at home.

  10. During my first coaching at a high school, I gave a speech during the award ceremony and not a single person laughed the ENTIRE way through. Plus I dropped all the certificates and they got out of order and I couldn't find whose was whose. It was mortifying.. but I think you win with the pee-pants story. :)


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