What it was like to speak at the March for Science in DC

I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC on April 22. Last week, I gave the text of my talk. Yesterday, I had a post about how I prepared for the talk. Today’s post has more about the day of the march.

tl;dr: I was so nervous 10 minutes before speaking that my teeth were chattering, but, thanks to having practiced it obsessively in the week leading up to the talk, felt fine for the talk itself and ended up having fun at the march.

I got to the National Mall early on Saturday morning – both because I am naturally a morning person and because the organizers had emphasized to leave lots of extra time to get there in the morning. I was supposed to be there by 9:10, but I got there around 7. I spent some time wandering around looking at signs, watching people doing last minute setup, and wandering around near the teach-in tents. I met up with a press person from my university to check in quickly and do a 10 second video clip. And then I went backstage and chatted with speakers and organizers… and got selfies, including a few with Bill Nye:

I had been told to be in a certain place 30 minutes before my talk time, but that place wasn’t covered and it was raining the morning of the march. So, around the time when I was supposed to get there, I went to try to find the person who was speaking before me, Jessica Ware, to see where she was waiting. I found her huddled under one of the production tents right near the main stage, waiting with other people who were ahead of us in the speaker list. It was interesting to watch what was going on in there. One person was in charge of scrolling through the teleprompter text, keeping it in the right place. Another person was timing everything and keeping track of whether a person was under or over, calling out the results to someone who I’m guessing was in charge of the overall production. And then there were the speakers, who were trying to stay out of the way of the production folks but also out of the dripline along the edge of the tent.

At one point, someone came to get Jessica to bring her to the area just off stage where speakers were waiting. I figured that someone would come to get me in 2 minutes, but no one came to do that. After a few minutes, Questlove came off stage and was waiting at the top of the steps. I decided that would be a good time to head up, getting this photo on my way:

Once I was just offstage, I started to get really nervous. The advice I’d been given was, starting 20 minutes before my talk, not to go over my talk anymore. Instead, I was supposed to imagine what it would be like to give a successful talk and think of that. But, in reality, I was shivering and my teeth were chattering. I’m sure it didn’t help that I was cold – I’d taken off my jacket before heading to the production tent – but I’m also sure that a lot of the shivering and teeth chattering was nerves. About 10 minutes before I went on, I was wondering whether I would be able to talk at all – the way my teeth were chattering, I wasn’t sure that I was actually in control of my facial muscles! Someone was telling a story that everyone else found funny, but I was too distracted to get it. During that time, the band was playing, and I remembered that I’d also been given advice to take deep breaths and stand tall. A few minutes later, I realized that I felt much better. I’m not sure if it was the breathing, the posture, the band jamming, or all three, but I was no longer worried that I wouldn’t be able to form words. And, in the couple of minutes before my talk, one of the organizers and one of the production people were giving me very specific directions about what to do (e.g., the importance of staying on time, the signal they would give to indicate 10 seconds left, how to exit the stage), and focusing on that was a great distraction.

Before I knew it, Jessica was wrapping up her talk and it was my turn to walk out. Once I walked out on stage, I wasn’t nervous at all. This is how it works for me when I teach – I get very anxious about whether I will make it to class, but, once I’m there, I have no problem lecturing to 300 students at a time. I’d been hoping that ability would scale by a couple of orders of magnitude and fortunately it did.

I started my talk, saying “Hello, I’m Meghan Duffy from the University of Michigan”. There was a cheer as soon as I said Michigan, which startled me a little – that wasn’t something I’d expected! And it made me a little nervous as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to talk as quickly as I thought because I would need to pause when people applauded. (Looking back, it’s kind of funny that I was stressed out that people were cheering! But I was so worried about staying on time that I couldn’t help but worry about that.) Fortunately, I had practiced my talk so much the week before (I think I succeeded in getting to happy birthday level with it) that I was able to keep going after a quick pause.

It ended up being really easy to read off the teleprompter, so having made some last minute cuts to my talk wasn’t an issue. And, as I said yesterday, I’m really glad I made those cuts as, given the pauses for applause, I would have been well over if I hadn’t.

I finished my talk, happy with how it had gone. And I even remembered which way I was supposed to exit the stage! As soon as I got to the bottom, there was someone waiting with an umbrella to bring me to the press tent. I went, bringing along my student who’d been backstage with me. We got some more selfies there, including with Megan Smith, the former US Chief Technology Officer:

Leland Melvin, astronaut:

and Mona Hanna-Attisha (the pediatrician who helped uncover the Flint Water Crisis) and Little Miss Flint:

People were, understandably, more interested in talking with them (not to mention Bill Nye, who was in the press tent then). So, after waiting a bit and feeling very in the way (the tent was very crowded), we decided to head back to the speaker tent.

It was very nice to be done! I was feeling pretty worn out then, and that, combined with the weather, made me start to wonder if I wanted to skip the march and just head back to my hotel. But I decided to go to try to meet up with some Michigan folks for a photo and then stayed with them for the march itself. That was when I first realized how big the crowd was, and started to get really excited about how many people had turned out despite the bad weather.

Something I realized later in the day was that I never really noticed the people out in front of me while I was speaking. I certainly knew that there were people there, but I really only took in the group of people right near the stage, and even they didn’t fully register. Part of what made me realize that was seeing this tweet from the Little Miss Flint account:

It certainly never registered to me while I was speaking that the White House was right out there in front of me, even though it was something I’d noted while I was practicing the day before.

After the march, I met up with a friend for dinner and didn’t get back to my hotel until 9. When I did, I started shaking. It’s not uncommon for me to have a big response after something that I was anxious about is over. (I cried after pretty much every committee meeting in grad school.) So, it wasn’t too surprising, but it also seemed a little silly given that everything was over and had gone smoothly!

In the end, it was an incredible opportunity, and I’m really grateful to have had it. It was a lot of fun to meet and interact with the other speakers, and I hope that my message made some people think more about the value of basic research and the importance of diversity in science. And now I know that I can give a talk on a really big stage and not die from anxiety. That’s good to know!

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