Talk The Talk

OK, I got a couple of requests for a report on my talk last night, so here goes.

For those who don’t know, I was asked to give a lecture at the local library last night. The library had received a grant to present a series of programs about physical fitness, and decided, this being Huntsville, that they should tie it into space, since that brings in the crowds.

They had hoped to get my co-author, astronaut Owen Garriott, to speak about his experiences living in space, but, when he declined, he recommended they contact me, so I ended up being the kick-off keynote speaker for the series.

At this point, let me point out that this was really probably my first public speaking engagement. Arguably, I might should have pointed that out before taking a slot as a keynote speaker, but that would require a degree of humility that I’m apparently incapable of. I’ve been really looking forward to giving talks when the book came out, so when they asked, and seemed like they actually wanted me to do it, I was happy to agree.

Given the focus of the series, I chose to speak about “Living In Space, Healthily — Long-Duration Spaceflight on Skylab and Beyond.” I wanted to combine the sorts of things I wrote about space history in the book with the things I write about in my day job about the present and future of exploration, so the lecture had a broad focus — NASA’s quest to learn about the physiological issues of the space environment, beginning with the early primate launches and going through humans on Mars.

I made my first-ever Powerpoint presentation for the talk, which was also an interesting experience, made much easier by the fact that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, so I didn’t have the stress of worrying about doing it right.

I was a little nervous going into the talk. To be honest, I didn’t rehearse it, just because I was afraid doing so would feel very forced and make me more nervous; so I just chose to take the approach that it was going to be OK. By yesterday afternoon, that was sort of catching up with me a bit.

It was very wonderful, then, when the audience started coming in, and included coworkers, family, friends and improv troupemates. It was wonderful playing to home crowd, and the friendship they demonstrated by being willing to come here me lecture about space stuff put me in a great mood for the lecture.

I’d been told that the series was intended for high school students, but the audience was all almost all adults, with a few younger kids with them. I have no idea how many people were there total; the room seemed pretty full. I would guess about 50, maybe more, but I could be wrong. I made the very honest disclaimer beforehand that I’d been told the talk was for high school students, to if the lecture was limited to about a high school technical level, it’s because that’s about all I understand.

I was hugely honored to have Bob Schwinghamer in the audience, one of the engineers we interviewed for the book. It was a bit intimidating to know that there was someone there who knew way more about what I was going to be talking about than I, who could give the lecture far better than I, and would know every mistake I made. So it was also incredibly flattering when he came up to me afterwards and said I did a good job, and shared a couple of related stories.

My initial reaction was — it was far less unpleasant than I feared. In fact, it was kind of fun. I’m very passionate about the topics I was talking about, and so the opportunity to just get up and riff about it for over an hour and have a captive and at least semi-interested audience was just a really neat experience. And the audience was great, everybody was very gracious.

I was worried about length; like I said, I didn’t rehearse it, I just put together a Powerpoint that seemed like it would take me an hour to talk about. I figured if I ended a little early, it would just leave time for a Q&A. As it turned out, I should have been worried the other way — I ran about 15 minutes long, despite realizing toward the end I was running out of time and rushing through the last section of the talk. But, again, the audience was very gracious about me going long.

It was also great having both friends and strangers come up afterwards to congratulate me or ask questions about the talk. And, yes, I will have to give a strictly monkey-focused talk sometime, apparently. But that’s OK, too. It amused me a bit how many people commented on bring surprised at the humor in the talk. I get paid to be funny — why is that surprising?

Anyway, all in all, it was a good evening, and I look forward to my next talk — currently planned for March 10.

2 Responses

  1. I am so sorry that I missed this talk. I know you were brilliant and I am so proud of all you have done. I am honored to be your friend, humbled to be your finance and pumped about being your wife 🙂

  2. I’m glad the talk went well. Public speaking still very much intimidates me. I’ve only done it a few times and never anything like what you did. Fifteen or twenty minutes is as long as I’ve ever had to speak. You are to be congratulated. Keeping an audience engaged for over an hour is no easy feat.

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