Saturday, June 20, 2009

storytelling: tell a story on yourself

UPDATE (8/8/2009): I'm so sorry to see that the video on which this post was based has been removed by the person who posted it--but here is an audio podcast so you can listen to this great talk. Go here for audio. Telling stories is part of the art of the eloquent speaker, but telling personal stories resonates even more. A personal story guarantees that your audience is getting original material, heightening their interest, and if you choose the story right and tell it on yourself--with surprises, slip-ups and ironic twists--you'll have a winning formula for holding attention. Best of all: Stories you know that well are stories you won't forget in the telling, making it possible for you to work without notes and therefore be more animated, enthusiastic and appealling.

Here's a compelling example of telling a story on yourself from Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate and president of Rockefeller University, whose research in cell biology has helped advance understanding of how cancer cells work. Here, he's telling a story about his own family, an intensely personal story told in a personable way, to which any listener can relate. No spoilers here: You need to listen to the story, a remarkable, funny and very frank recounting, to learn how he spins a true tale.

I'd encourage you to think about a story you can tell in this way, especially if it discloses something about you that's pertinent to your audience. Before you do, it's important to take time to think through how you'll tell the story, what you'll emphasize or omit, and where you'll wind it up, as well as what larger point you want it to underscore. In this example, Nurse skillfully works in mentions of his entire family, from his wife and children (whose family tree project led to a surprising discovery) to his mother, sister and grandparents--a simple way to ensure that any one who plays those roles in the audience will be able to see themselves in his story. That's important given his audience at the World Science Festival which aims to reach non-scientific public audiences. His own surprise and discovery emerge as the tale unfolds, and he draws it together at the end by noting the irony that, while he's "not a bad geneticist, my rather simple family kept my own genetic secret for over half a century."

Related posts: Speaker on ice: When you need to wing it

UPDATE, July 11, 2009: This post was included in Andrew Dlugan's "Best Public Speaking Tips and Techniques: Weekend Review", a nod I'm always happy to have from his Six Minutes blog--another great read for those of you looking for news, tips and advice on public speaking.

everything in moderation

You may be asked to moderate a panel because you're an established speaker...or not. That's one of the beauties of moderating: You can be a beginner or a seasoned speaker. That's not the issue. When it comes down to moderating, here are the considerations you (and the inviting hosts) need to assess:
  • Will you add value? This may mean your reputation in the field, your ability to fulfill any of the expectations below, or some other "secret sauce" you can add, from provocative questioning of panelists to thorough handling of the audience's issues. This expectation means you should not view a moderator's role as something less or easier than that of a panelist--if you do, you'll miss a grand opportunity to show your skills.

  • Can you control the horses and the clock? Moderators exist to keep the trains--and the panelists--on time. In addition to paying attention to how much time is left, this may mean managing panelists' expectations ahead of time. I once arrived to a moderating session to learn that one panelist had insisted on bringing and showing video. Not only was this not an option for the other panelists, the venue's limitations meant that a projection screen could be used only if it were lowered in front of the panel, blocking any view of them. Invoking my moderator status, I said the screen and projector should be whisked away. "But what if he objects?" the organizer said. "Tell him to talk to me," I said. With three panelists and a tight schedule, I knew a video would mean the difference between his promotion and time for audience questions. Getting the equipment out of the way before his arrival helped--he never asked about it.

  • How will you manage the experience?Both the audience and the speakers will be looking to you to manage the speaking experience. Speakers caught by an awkward or persistent questioner may need a rescue; audience members desperate to get a question in, ditto. Those who need to leave on time will appreciate your saying, "We have time for just one more question" a few minutes before the close. Be sure to ask the speakers in advance if there are special needs they have, like leaving at a particular time or a desire to speak to a particular issue.

  • Can you be the essential fourth speaker? Moderation doesn't mean silence, particularly if you can add to the discussion--briefly. Don't outshine your panelists, but do chime in as you move from one speaker to the next, or after a question's been answered. And if you can answer a question the speakers can't, do it.
Related posts: 4 stepping stones (including moderation) to get speaking practice