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A perfect illusion

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Science  26 Feb 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6532, pp. 958
DOI: 10.1126/science.371.6532.958

On the morning of my Ph.D. qualifying exam, I rolled out of bed, showered, and slid into my navy blue blazer and matching checkered pants. Next came the makeup. I brushed on a layer of foundation and drew thick black lines around my eyes—a look that signified the boldness I wanted to embody during my presentation. I put on heels and walked around my apartment, a test drive to ensure I wouldn't collapse on the floor in pain. After a few laps, I looked in the mirror. I felt confident—ready to face the members of my Ph.D. committee and answer whatever questions they threw at me. It's a strategy I developed thanks to an unlikely inspiration: Lady Gaga.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“My naturally shy and quiet personality was not exactly ideal for public speaking.”

I've always struggled with being confident. As an undergraduate, my heart pounded whenever I raised my hand to answer questions posed by professors. I knew the material, but the prospect of getting the answer wrong in front of all my classmates was daunting.

Later, in graduate school, I especially feared giving presentations about my research. Beforehand, I would practice for hours on end. I knew I risked sounding rehearsed and boring, but calming my nerves was more important. The practice helped somewhat, but on presentation day, I still sounded flustered.

I pored over books to find the best ways to format and outline a presentation. If I had clear slides, I reasoned, maybe then I'd have the courage to speak with authority. I ended up with well-designed slides, but I could not present them any better.

Unlocking the key to my confidence was much more difficult than I anticipated. I realized I couldn't expect to wake up one day, look in the mirror, and say, “OK, today is the big day; today I am going to be confident.” But perhaps I could find a creative solution that would work for me.

The breakthrough came during the month before my qualifying exam—a major milestone in my Ph.D. program that triggered waves of self-doubt—when I listened to a Lady Gaga album titled Joanne. As an avid fan, I noticed it sounded completely different from her past albums. She had switched from her usual dance-pop to soft rock and country, and her outfits—now cowgirl getups—had changed as well. I was intrigued. Lady Gaga was taking a huge professional risk, but she was confident in the music she released, confident in herself, and confident in her ability to adopt a new image.

That got me thinking: Could I do something similar before I stepped on stage? My naturally shy and quiet personality was not exactly ideal for public speaking, so I thought about the traits and the image I wanted my professional self to possess. I pictured a steady, clear voice and a tall, commanding stance. I imagined myself as the expert in the room who wasn't afraid to say, “I'm not sure.” I thought about the moments when I felt the most put together, when I wore professional clothing and highlighted my features through makeup. To me, makeup wasn't a mask. It signified boldness, femininity, and self-assurance—all traits I associated with strength and power.

I experimented with the idea during a practice presentation at home. I stood next to my laptop in professional attire, speaking loudly and fluidly—a sharp contrast to my usual practice routine, which involved sitting at my desk in pajamas speaking quietly. It was a promising start. I decided to give my new presenter persona a try at my qualifying exam.

When I walked into the exam room, I was pleased to discover I had a newfound confidence. Sure, I was nervous, but an unfamiliar sense of calm rushed through me as soon as I began my talk. I was able to answer questions without a quaver in my voice, and I took ownership of the work I presented. Finally, I was the expert. At that moment, I realized that we either succumb to feelings of doubt or find innovative ways to overcome them.

In the years since, my presenter persona has given me confidence during many talks and interviews, and I've become more comfortable transforming into this role when necessary. There's no surefire way to become a confident presenter. But thanks to Lady Gaga, I now have a strategy that works.

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