Welcome to Tonight’s Presentation*

Giving LecturesSooner or later, most of us are faced with the prospect of giving a lecture or presentation. It might be something as simple as sharing some information at a business meeting; or it might be a formal academic lecture. No matter what kind of presentation it is, there’s a lot to consider. There’s the matter of tailoring one’s talk to one’s audience. And there’s the not-at-all trivial matter of making the presentation interesting to that audience. Some people are naturally more extroverted than others, so one also has to consider the delivery. In particular, if you’re not a natural extrovert, how do you make your voice, your mannerisms and so on more interesting than whatever games members of your audience may be playing on their telephones? It’s also important to find ways to deal with the natural nervousness that can go along with giving lectures and presentations. Some people’s careers involve lots of presentations, so they’re accustomed to having all eyes on them, even if it’s not something they enjoy. Others, however, get extremely anxious in front of a group. Finally, there’s the matter of logistics. Power Point or video? What about the audio? Is there WiFi in the room you’ll be using if you need that? If not, how will you adjust? Handouts or no? How much time do you have? Are you going to leave time for questions and comments? You get the idea.

Despite all that, people give presentations all the time. So it’s little wonder we see them throughout crime fiction. Some characters handle them more easily than others. There’s an interesting mention of a presentation, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Mrs. Oliver has a strange feeling there’s more to this than just an attraction, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit, and see what he thinks. Mrs. Oliver’s worst fears come true on the day of the fête, when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is strangled. On the surface of it, there seems no motive for the murder, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver discover that the victim had a way of finding out other people’s secrets, and that she might have found out more than was safe for her to know. At one point, Poirot has a telephone conversation with Mrs. Oliver. His first question is whether it’s a good time to talk:

‘It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,’ she said. ‘I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”

Mrs. Oliver is pleased to get out of this obligation because she feels there’s not much interesting about writing books:

‘What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up.’’

It’s much better, from her perspective, to work on the case at hand.

The real action in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes begins when Miss Lucy Pym, who’s gained some renown as a psychologist, is invited to Leys, an exclusive physical training school for young women run by her old friend Henrietta Hedge. Miss Pym is scheduled to give a lecture on psychology to the Leym students.  She’s there for several days and is getting to know the students when word comes that a well-known school has a job vacancy. Everyone thinks that Mary Innes will be selected; instead, the choice is Barbara Rouse. There are already some questions about Barbara; she’s behaved in an odd and secretive way. But this infuriates everyone. Then, Barbara is badly wounded in what looks like a terrible accident. Later, she dies of her injuries. Now Miss Pym has to use her observation and her knowledge of psychology to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent introduces Anya Crichton, a New South Wales-based pathologist. She’s recently opened her own freelance office, and sometimes gives lectures at the local university. Here are her thoughts about preparing her lectures:

‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house.’

Of course, university lectures don’t always go over the way one thinks they will. Trust me. Here, for instance, is the first question Crichton is asked:

‘‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’’

Every educator will be able to relate to that. All thoughts of successful lecturing are put to one side, though, when Crichton’s friend, DS Kate Farrer, asks her to take a look at an unusual death. It turns out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the two end up pitting themselves against a very dangerous force.

Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who became something of a celebrity. He’s gotten ‘burned out’ on it, though, and has taken a cottage in the Lake District. There, he works with DCI Hannah Scarlett as she and her Cold Case Review Team look into unsolved cases that still resonate. His work with Scarlett doesn’t mean that Kind has lost interest in his own field, though. He continues to do research and give presentations and lectures. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, he’s just returned from the US, where he spent several months giving a series of guest lectures. While he enjoyed the experience, he’s glad to back in the Lakes. And it turns out to be none too soon, as Scarlett and her team are faced with a six-year-old case of drowning that turns out not to be suicide, as was originally thought. That death, and two other, recent, deaths turn out to be related to Kind’s current research topic.

And then there’s Philip Kerr’s The Lady From Zagreb, which features his PI sleuth Bernie Gunther. The story takes place in 1956, but in it, Gunther remembers the Germany of 1942, when Gunther, who hated the Nazis, was drawn against his will into a Nazi plot. The goal was to get famous actress Dalia Dresner to return to making Nazi propaganda films. To defy the Nazis was not possible, but Gunther found a way to navigate the waters, so to speak. In one plot thread of this novel, the Germans have arranged an international crime conference; and General Arthur Nebe, who’s in charge of it all, wants Gunther to be speak at the conference. As you can imagine, Gunther is loath to do so:

‘‘My idea of public speaking is to shout for a beer from the back of the bar.’’

But Nebe has no other real option, and Gunther is not in a position to refuse. The conference makes for an interesting plot point in the novel.

Giving lectures and presentations is second nature to some. To others, it’s an onerous task best avoided if at all possible. But no matter how we feel about it, most of us have that experience sooner or later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go through my Power Point slides and make sure my video works….



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What’s Really Goin’ Wrong.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Kathryn Fox, Martin Edwards, Phhilip Kerr

17 responses to “Welcome to Tonight’s Presentation*

  1. Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat centres on an ancient academic giving a talk at an Australian university – he rambles on, and thinks he remembers meeting Jane Austen when he was a young man. But something in his chit chat leads to death…

  2. If you have any apprehensions in this area, you’d never know it by your Crime Fiction News Breaks. Myself, I’d be a nervous wreck! One on one I’m fine, but speaking to a large crowd, or even making a video, evokes all sorts of anxiety.

    • I’m a professor, Sue. We love the sound of our own voices in front of an audience; it’s an occupational hazard 😉 – In all seriousness, though, I prep carefully for the Crime Fiction News Break editions and for presentations and lectures I give. Doesn’t mean I’m never nervous, but I’ve done it enough times now that I’ve gotten used to it. And trust me, fear of public speaking is one of the most common anxieties people face. You are not alone.

  3. Col

    I absolutely loathe speaking in a room full of people. If either of my two girls get married, I’m feigning voice-loss and their mum can do a speech!

    • You’re absolutely not alone, Col! Many, many people dislike speaking in public at least as much as you do. And at least you can dance with your daughters at their weddings; that doesn’t require a speech.

  4. I’m probably reading all your posts in the wrong order, as I’ve just come back from holidays, but I’ve got to make a start somewhere and this is a subject dear to my heart. Like you, I can talk to an audience for hours and need to be dragged off the stage in an auditorium at times! Especially if it involves one of my favourite subjects. But I know how terrifying presentations can be for most people: I run courses on that topic and it’s very often not the preparation or the subject matter expertise that frightens people (who are often very very knowledgeable about their topic), but more of a physical reaction, learning to breathe, to control your voice and your hands shaking etc. Then again, I’d rather listen to a nervous but interesting speaker than to an over-confident bore…

    • I would, too, Marina Sofia. And I think you’re absolutely right. It’s almost never a question of whether the nervous speaker knows her or his topic. It’s not even always a question of whether the speaker knows how to use technology such as PowerPoint and is comfortable with it. Those things can be taught and coached. It is a physical reaction. It needs to be acknowledged, because it’s very real. But as you say, practice can often help such speakers learn to cope with their reactions in productive ways, so that they can make presentations when they need to do that.

      Welcome back from holidays, and I hope you had a wonderful time!

    • How interesting Marina Sofia – I think a course on how to control those physical reactions is a fabulous idea. – on the rare occasions (mostly uni presentations) when I have had to address a room I have suffered all those conditions but find they do settle…eventually.

  5. Janet Fearnley

    The 39 Steps: trying to escape the bad guys buys time giving a speech (aka presentation?!) when mistaken for an MP. Even though it’s suspense it also makes me chuckle and after something of a wobbly start gets the audience on side! Just a light relief moment. Great story and I love the Robert Donat version of the film.

  6. Giving presentations is my absolute worst nightmare – Everyone says ‘it’s fine if you know your stuff’ but it really isn’t! I occasionally have to do it for work and invariably try and get out of it because I hate it that much. You’ve found some great examples here some of which I really identify with!

    • You are by no means alone, Cleo. It’s one of the most common anxiety-producers that there is. Even for people who loathe presentations, they do get easier with time. The more you do, the less painful they are. But for many people, presentations remain one of life’s necessary evils, no matter how many they do.

  7. I fall into the “onerous task to be avoided if at all possible” camp. I always admire those who can do it so well.

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