Note: I originally published this article in the 4th volume of The Brickyard, the graduate student publication edited and put together by a group of folks in the UC Davis Grad Group in Ecology. You can find a link to that publication here, and the article below is largely the same. I’ve made a few minor changes and conjugated the title in a more pleasing way. I hope you like it!
On the fourth day of the new presidential administration, I got an email from my funding source saying they didn’t know if the money would keep coming. I knew the attitude toward science would shift with the change in power, but I never expected such concrete impacts to my life within the first week. When my paycheck did come two weeks later, I knew I had to change my approach. I wanted to feel I was working to make things better, and if I experienced a near miss, it’s almost certain someone else had taken the hit. Like any good type A personality, I knew what I really needed was a plan.
I read a lot of think pieces, I talked to a lot of folks I respect, and, in the end, I developed an approach that felt right for me. I offer you my own guidelines now, not as prescription, but as an attempt to empower you to make a plan for how you will approach the coming years. Interrogating my own motivations and priorities was emotionally taxing, time consuming, and frustrating. Inventorying my special skills required grappling with imposter syndrome for the millionth, and I’m sure not last, time. I still haven’t gotten over the daunting size of the issues we face, but as Cairns and Crawford once wrote, “It is almost too late to start, but tomorrow is even later.”
As most regular readers of this blog know, I’m a speech nerd. I competed in forensics (speech and debate) for 11 years, all the way through the collegiate level**. As a result of this decade long inundation in communications training, I’m deeply invested in the subject of scientific communication. I’ve taken some really stellar courses and workshops on the subject, and there is a growing resource of training, which focuses on helping scientists get the right content for the right audience and producing a concise and compelling message. That is hugely important! As my communications instructor husband told me recently, “Don’t shirk when planning the content of your message. 90% of effective communication happens before you open your mouth.” It’s a point with which I completely agree. There are forums where this sort of training is not only hugely beneficial, but is also entirely sufficient: writing popular science articles, starting a blog, or giving a killer one on one interview with a journalist.
However, there are plenty of communication situations that don’t involve writing or speaking to a journalist one-on-one. That’s right, the thing folks apparently fear more than death, public speaking. I would contend that scientists are, often, not confident or competent public speakers. Furthermore, scientific communication training often lacks detailed instruction on this critical skill. Have I seen scientists who can throw down on a speech or a talk? Sure. But public speaking is really hard! Lots of folks have legitimate public speaking anxiety, and still others simply haven’t gotten many chances to practice this skill. Again, learning what to say is more important than how we actually deliver those words, especially for scientists, for whom accuracy is the barometer for competency. However, I’ve seen some really fascinating scientific subjects, things I was personally invested in, fall flat at conferences. I’ve seen keynote speakers who had amazing, well written stories to tell fail to really capture the potential of the moment. I’ve heard folks talking about eminent environmental threats on NPR and wanted to turn off the radio and take a nap. I think we can do better!***
Enough of that, you’re reading this because of the enticing title. Tips. Tricks! Life hacks (eh, that was probably euphemistic at best)! In the interest of being concise, I decided I would give you the public speaking advice I give all my friends before their conference presentations or job talks. Unfortunately, that’s only about two items, so I reached out to all my speech and debate friends on Facebook, and asked them about their best bit of public speaking advice. I wanted to know that one thing they advise their pals to do to prepare for a talk. I got some great feedback, and I’ve done my best to distill it all down into a few major themes and spin them in such a way that they will be useful to scientists in a few of the different forums in which we commonly address an audience. Thus, these tips should be useful to you if you are speaking to your peers or if you are speaking to the public. I’ve put these in reverse order of importance, so if you read nothing else, skip down to number 5, as this was the advice literally everyone gave, and I thought it deserved some substantial elaboration.