So a few of us were sitting around waiting for the weekly departmental seminar to kick off this afternoon, and we got to talking about nerves. After all, giving a public talk can be a stressful experience, as your research is put at the mercy of an often hostile audience.

A post-doc in our lab was giving the first talk, and I told him he was lucky because our supervisor is out of town.

“Shouldn’t that be more stressful?” he asked.

Well, not to me. I explained that when you’re talking about your research and the boss isn’t in the room, you are by default the one who knows more about it than anyone else in the world. But if the boss is there, I am always aware of everything I say and somewhere, in the back of my mind, wondering whether it is passing muster – whether our world views on the data in question actually coincide.

“My boss has a ‘tell’,” offered one of the other post-docs who’d arrived early. “When you’re up at the podium and you say something not quite right, he does this –”

And she proceeded to demonstrate: hand creeping over eyes, hunched shoulders, a fatal shrinking in of her entire body.

“And if you don’t extract yourself correctly,” she added, “he starts fiddling with his socks.”

My colleague then recalled that our supervisor also has a ‘tell’: he leans back in his chair, tilts his head and raises his eyebrows to a rather non-committal elevation.

“On second thought,” he said, “Maybe it is a good thing he’s out of town.”