March 4 “Tell Me More” Conversation: Professor Tamsen Wolff

On March 4, Tamsen Wolff, Associate Professor of English, opened the third session of the “Tell Me More: Humanizing Our Research” dinner conversation series with a command to “Speak with Our Bodies.” Going around the table, she asked members of the graduate student audience to introduce themselves and articulate in real time their physiological responses to public speaking. Flushed cheeks, clammy hands, rapid heartbeats — all of these, she commented, were a visceral reminder to “never speak without warming up!”

In the spirit of practicing what she preached, Professor Wolff dedicated most of her talk to non-talking. Instead, she led participants through a series of warm-up exercises meant to break the ice, relax the body and voice, and bolster participants’ confidence not only in the content of their remarks but also in the very act of speaking. Students — and a few game administrators, including Assistant Dean for Professional Development James Van Wyck, Associate Director of Fellowship Advising Steve Gump, and Princeton Writes’ Director John Weeren and Assistant Director Stephanie Whetstone — began on the floor and worked their way up to facial exercises, humming, and a re-do at introducing themselves in a manner designed to maximize their connection with others. For women especially, Professor Wolff advised, “Stop smiling if you don’t mean it!”

Afterwards, over salmon, cheese, and wine, Professor Wolff answered a host of audience questions, addressing how to handle interruptions in a public talk, make an appropriate amount of eye contact, and tailor speech to specific settings, such as a job talk or Skype interview. The most important thing, she urged, is to “always, always, always remember the breath.”

To much laughter, she likened public speaking to hosting a party. “You [should] think,” she explained, “‘I’m hosting this party!’ Okay? And there are some people at this party who are sad, socially inept people — I am not talking about the people in this room right now! — so your job is essentially to put everyone at their ease. You want them to have a good time.” So “look at the audience with compassion and generosity.” After all, she concluded, “you want them to come to the party!” At this, Cate Mahoney, PhD Candidate in English, raised her wine glass: “Cheers to that!”

The next session of “Tell Me More” will take place on April 8, 2020, with William C. Jordan, Princeton’s Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, on “Engaging the Academy at Large,” in Room 301 of the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building.

Author: Elizabeth Durham

Photographer: Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy