The following piece, entitled “The sun is hot because it’s hot’: public speaking in the era of Zoom,” was written by Amy Sayle, one of the students in Julia Green’s recent online class, Writing Through Crisis: Using Memoir to Navigate Challenging Times. The next section of Writing Through Crisis begins Tuesday, October 6th. For more information and to register for this class, visit this link.
“The sun is hot because it’s hot”: public speaking in the era of Zoom
By Amy Sayle
It’s 10 a.m. on the dot, my webcam is on, and I am live in front of our Zoom audience, when I open my mouth, look at the screen, and completely forget what I’m supposed to say.
The problem is not that I care what I look like. I’ve never succumbed to the hair-makeup-fashion-etc. expectations for women’s appearances.
The problem is also not a fear of public speaking. I make a living presenting to the public at a planetarium, and I am completely comfortable with large, live, in-person audiences.
This is a change from when I started doing this in 1998. Back then, after every planetarium show, I would obsess about anything I’d said that wasn’t perfect. Maybe I’d garbled an explanation of why Polaris hasn’t always been the North Star, or misunderstood a kid’s question about the planets, or said something snarky about astrology. Once, in front of an audience filled with high school students, I was trying to say “planet Venus” and accidentally transposed the initial letters of those two words.
I’d ruminate over these blunders for hours, convinced that the audience members were doing the same. I imagined the adults laughing about my mangled explanations over dinner with their kids, or while side by side on their pillows. I imagined the jokes about my mistakes that the teens would be telling at parties for years to come.
Finally, it occurred to me that it didn’t really matter. The shows were live, with no recording. My words vanished into the ether as soon as they were spoken. Probably no one remembered much of the specifics of what I said or even who I was. No one was there to see me anyway. I was literally in the dark.
But this spring, the pandemic has meant no more shows inside the planetarium. Now it’s all online live sky tours using planetarium software, followed by Q&A. This means my name and my face are also on the screen. Worst of all, the live sessions are recorded from Zoom and put up on YouTube for anyone to see.
So there I am, at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, about to welcome our audience to one of our “engaging learning opportunities, like this live virtual event!”
… or something like that. Who knows what I’m supposed to say? I don’t know anymore, because my mind has gone blank. The reason I’m rattled is that we’re training someone new to handle the back-end work for these live videos, and she’s joined the video only a few minutes before 10, having struggled to find the correct Zoom link. Then she’s struggled to figure out how to screen-share our intro slide, and we’ve just realized she also needs to super quickly learn Zoom’s polling feature.
In the Before Time, inside the planetarium, there was lots of technology to deal with. But I’d long become used to talking to an audience while being responsible for the microphone, lights, music, not to mention the entire universe, all while simultaneously having a group late-seated right in front of me or a toddler melting down in the background.
But dealing with a webcam, computer mic, and the weird sensation of talking from a living room to an invisible audience while seeing my own image in front of me—that all still feels very new. It feels like a major accomplishment merely to hit the correct keys at the correct moment to unmute myself and turn on the webcam. Knowing that our new person is wrestling with even more new technology, technology crucial for making this all work, is totally freaking me out.
At 9:59 a.m., the colleague who is training our new person wisely pulls the plug on the training and seizes back the host control. A hastily typed, cryptic message goes out on the chat to all of us. Something like: “you ready.”
It’s now 10 a.m., our live audience is waiting, we’re supposed to start, and this is not the start signal we’ve used with our other presentations. I’m not sure who’s typed this, whether it’s a question or a statement, or who it’s directed at. This unleashes some frantic back and forth typing, with me finally writing, “starting hope you’re ready.”
I successfully turn on my audio and camera. This apparently uses up all the cognitive power I had left, because then I promptly forget what we’re all here for. I think I forget my own name. I stumble though the introduction, then turn things over to my colleague Nick to introduce himself and our theme for the day: the constellations of the zodiac.
I breathe a sigh of relief as everything goes smoothly for the next 25 minutes. Since Nick has to do a lot of work to manipulate the planetarium software that generates the sky, it’s my job to do most of the talking. The topic is one I’ve spoken about many times, I’m in the groove, and I explain everything reasonably competently. I think I even avoid unnecessary snark about astrology, and I forget about my botched intro.
Whenever Nick takes a quick turn to say something, I check the Q&A to see if anyone’s written any relevant questions.
No, it turns out.
There are only a few questions, and they are relevant only in the sense that they relate in some way to some object in outer space. Otherwise, the questions are wildly off topic: “What’s a white dwarf?” (which the questioner has spelled “dorf”) “How long would it take to get to Neptune?” “Why is the sun hot?” Why is the sun hot? What?
We finish our presentation, and it’s time to handle questions. Since attendees can’t see each other’s questions, I decide to ignore what everyone has typed in, in favor of pretending someone has asked an excellent, on-topic question about the zodiac constellations. I answer my made-up question brilliantly.
It’s now 10:28 or 10:29, and I’m expecting Nick to segue into our outro, about following us on twitter and the like. I’m not even really paying attention anymore. I’m fantasizing about the snack I’m going to have as a reward for surviving this. I wonder if there’s still a chocolate bar left in the pantry. Maybe it’s even the orange dark chocolate.
That’s when Nick does the thing we agreed we would never do. Which is to take a question from the Q&A and pose it to the other person.
I am jolted out of my chocolate reverie by this: “So, Amy. Why is the sun hot?”
You know how our president speaks when he’s not reading from a teleprompter? How he often sounds like he has little grasp of either the concept he’s talking about or of the English language itself?
That is what happens to me. What comes out my mouth is incoherent Trumpian word salad. I haven’t dared to revisit the video, but I’m pretty sure I start by explaining the mass of the Sun by using the phrase “the Sun has a lot of stuff.” And I say words like “nuclear fusion” and “hydrogen” and “helium” and “pressure” and “temperature” and possibly I throw out numbers like “27 million degrees Fahrenheit”—but all in a way that is unmoored from logic or meaning.
In the end, I have answered the simple question, the good-if-not-completely-relevant question of “Why is the sun hot?” with a whole bunch of words that basically translate to: “The Sun is hot because it is hot.”
This is mortifying. I have spewed out nonsense, about a very basic question, live on the internet, and it’s all connected to my name and face. Worst of all, this session is being recorded. It will exist on the internet, for as long as the internet exists, available on YouTube to billions of my fellow humans, who can replay it again and again and laugh at what I said.
To recover from this, I have had to draw upon research I remember reading about once, that yes, people do pay attention to us, but no one is paying attention to us in the way that we think.
Therefore, I comfort myself with the thought that most people won’t even notice how badly I mangled that answer. Instead, they’ll notice other things, possibly like how I wear the same black shirt for every live session. Or how my hair is a one giant humido-meter, perfectly preserving a record of central North Carolina humidity from day to day, by the specific diameter and height of the frizz halo.
And I don’t care about any of that.
Though I am convinced that someone, somewhere, is still getting laughs at parties by recounting that time way back in high school when they went on a field trip to the planetarium and the lady pointed out “vlanet penis.”