Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Finding a great anecdote in difficulty

I think lots of professional women the world over gasped the other day when reading these opening paragraphs in a New York Times article on new directions in cancer research:
Mina Bissell will never forget the reception she got from a prominent scientist visiting Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she worked. She gave him a paper she had just published on the genesis of cancer.

He took the paper and held it over the wastebasket and said, ‘What do you want me to do with it?’ Then he dropped it in.”
That type of purposefully over-the-top rejection of her work is something many women (and many scientists) have experienced in the workplace. But now that her work has been recognized as an innovative approach to cancer research, Mina Bissell is doing just what every woman speaker should do: Using her experience with adversity to build compelling anecdotes that underscore her story.

I feel certain no one goes out to seek adverse conditions to improve their speeches and stories. But reflecting on challenges you've faced, and being willing to talk about them, can make you a more powerful, riveting speaker. With time and perspective, your tales of woe can even be used as humorous counterpoints. For example: Bissell's insight involves looking not at genetic abnormalities as drivers of cancer, but at the microenvironment of tissue surrounding cancer cells, and how those interactions affect the disease. In this story from the East Bay Express, she weaves together that detail of her research -- the microenvironment--along with objections she faced in the workplace, this time to her desire to work while pregnant, to bring down the house in a speaking engagement:
At a recent meeting of the East Bay Association for Women in Science, Bissell recalled the consternation inspired by her pregnancy. "I walked into my professor's office and he said, 'Of course you are quitting! What is your mother going to say?'" she recalled. "And my mom called from Iran and said, "You are not quitting!" Instead, her mother came to help out for several months. Bissell shot her audience a knowing look. "Microenvironment," she said slyly, to roars of laughter.
Today, her research papers are described as milestones in cancer and awards in the field are named after her. Bissell's using that opportunity to share the tale of the barriers she faced in putting her ideas forward. It's a form of justice women speakers can claim to even the score and to make sure that type of negative behavior is noted--and not just years later in a formal speech. It's a way she can help other female scientists as well as engage public audiences, who love the story of a struggle. I can't help wondering what would've happened if she'd said to the research-tossing visitor, "Thanks for giving me a great story to tell when my research turns out to be right," as she fished the paper out of the wastebasket. You may not be that quick on the draw in an intimidating workplace situation. But you can make lemonade out of those lemons the next time you give a speech. (Photo from the LBNL photostream on Flickr.)

No comments: