Being a scientist means giving lots and lots of talks. You have may have heard me mention the National Speakers Association, the society for people who give talks for a living. I’ve been fascinated by this organization for several years, and trying to learn what I can from them about how we scientists can give better talks.

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Bernadette, me, and a Hoberman sphere at Los Alamos

When I went to my first National Speakers Association meeting. I sat down a banquet table full of strangers and nervously introduced myself to the woman on my left. She was Bernadette Vadurro, President of Speakers Live, Inc., the past president of Capitol City Toastmasters and the 2009 President of the National Speakers Association New Mexico Chapter. As luck would have it, Bernadette was working at that moment with a group of scientists and engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, so we struck up a conversation.

Now I might somewhat be less introverted than some scientists. But Bernadette really has the professional speaker’s gift; all eyes are on her when she walks into a room. I didn’t think I could be much use to someone so versed in the craft of professional speaking. Indeed, we lost touch after the meeting.

But to my surprise and delight, Bernadette called me up last year and insisted that I give a workshop with her on Presentation Skills and Marketing at Los Alamos National Laboratory. We’ve continued to work together this year on a series of workshops about my favorite subject: providing scientists with marketing and communications tools.

I’ve learned all kinds of new tricks from Bernadette and I count her as my speaking mentor. So without further ado, let me offer you some choice tips for giving good presentations—from an interview with author and professional speaker Bernadette Vadurro, C.S.P.

MK: OK. You have lots of letters after your name.  What exactly is a C.S.P.?

BV: A C.S.P. is a certified speaking professional. It’s designated by the National Speakers Association.  It is grueling to obtain!  I have a friend who has an M.B.A. from Harvard and she said it was easier to get the M.B.A. from Harvard than her C.S.P.

MK: What’s the secret to being a really great speaker?

BV: Well, there are a lot of components to giving a really great talk.  Think of sitting down to a meal in a fabulous restaurant: the presentation is beautiful, the food is delicious, and everything is perfect from the waitstaff to the table settings.  That’s how you want your talk to be.

MK: What special struggles do you think scientists have as speakers?

B.V. Scientists frequently appear to practice one-upmanship. I.e., how smart can I sound?  How can I overwhelm you with my content? They forget that when you’re talking to a public audience you have to bring everyone along with you.  I use the analogy that if you can think of your talk like a cruise ship—you wouldn’t want to leave anybody on shore.

The other big thing is that scientists, because of their focus on empirical work, forget to have a call for action.  That’s why we have so many Americans looking to a groundhog to tell them what the weather is going to be and ignoring climate scientists with the real facts.  We have many critical issues that the public looks to scientists and engineers to fix, but because of the disconnect between the information and data that scientists present and the understanding by the general public—on how they can actually act upon the information to make a difference we end up with confusion on the cause of a warming climate, warming and polluted oceans, earthquakes caused by fracking and all sorts of problems. People need to be led by the hand and told specifically: how do we fix things.

MK: What is a call to action?

BV: The call to action is telling people literally what they should do after hearing your information.

MK: What’s the difference between giving a scientific talk, and say, giving a TED talk or a keynote presentation at a banquet?

BV: There a huge difference. A scientific talk for colleagues is given in scientific jargon—and you are free to speak in scientific terms because there’s an understanding in the scientific community. You can’t expect that non-scientific people will understand you in a public talk. In speaking to the public if you talk about “moles” or “quarks” it sounds like something that should grow as a result of mildew. Scientists can’t expect to the general public to know these things.  You have to start more basic than that.  If you don’t have the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), the eyes glaze over and the cell phones come out and people start walking out of your talk.

MK: Here’s one of the handy tricks I learned from you.  How do you handle people who are being rude and talking during your presentation?

BV:  Well you use you body language by moving towards them–and the perpetrators will stop talking!  If you’re stuck on the stage, you can look directly at them, or ask for feedback from the group. Always assume the reason the perpetrators are talking is because you hit on something emotional and they are excited about your topic. My rule is to never embarrass, act condescending or be rude towards a participant.

MK: Here’s a thorny issue that came up during the last workshop we gave together. When do you think is it OK for women to smile during a presentation?

BV: I think that smiling is the number one way to gain rapport with your audience. The smile is such a pleasant thing on a face.  Smile when you want to increase the buy-in to your ideas. It is a subliminal way to increase your influence with the audience.

So I think both men and women should smile. But you don’t smile just for the sake of smiling–smile with a purpose. You do not smile when you’re trying to be really serious.  For example you can put out really serious information with a serious face and as you see people connecting to your idea you then reinforce it with a smile and a head nod.  I also give a smile as a reward to a participant or to reward the audience for participating with me. You can always tell when you have your audience hooked by watching their body language.

MK: How does marketing fit in with presentation skills?

BV: In today’s world, marketing means selectively seeking out your target audience—the people who want what you have to offer, your services or products.  It means finding your tribe.

Presenting is the opportunity to connect with those people in your tribe.  And this is a make or break moment when people decide if the message you’re going to deliver worth their time.  People make up their minds in a matter of seconds about whether they plan to tune out or perk up and listen.

MK: Is there anything else I should have asked you about?

BV: Yes!  Vadurro and Kuchner are available for customized in-house training programs specifically for the scientific community!

MK:  So here’s that call to action?

BV:  Yes!  Send me an email at Berna@speakerslive.com and ask about our workshops.

 

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