Tuesday, August 18, 2009

describing your career at the dinner table

For lots of professionals, the simple question "What do you do?" is a public-speaking stumper. That's especially true if you suspect your audience--even the small group around a dinner table or at a cocktail party--won't understand your work. This comes up a lot when I'm training scientists, so I was delighted to find this story by wildlife specialist Amy Alfieri on Under the Microscope, a website about women and science. Here's what she wrote, in part:
Just last night I was at a dinner party and faced with the usual question: "What do you do for work?" The first thing that came out of my mouth was a laugh, as though I was just asked the most awkward question in existence. Truthfully, there is nothing awkward in what I do as a wildlife specialist; the awkwardness comes from explaining it to others. How do you tell someone who works in advertising or human resources that I pull brainstems out of dead deer to test for Chronic Wasting Disease? ....Last night's audience got a toned down description of my various tasks, and I opted to elaborate on the less gruesome jobs that I do throughout the year. Nonetheless, I made it very clear how I feel about my job and why I think the work I do is important.
If this sounds familiar, it's worth taking the time to come up with a few short, simple explanations of your work and practice them. You'll then be able to feel more confident explaining your work, even in small settings--and that's a great stepping stone for the larger audience occasions to come.

if you had $1000 to spend on speaking...

...what would you buy? I'm not talking about training, but about equipment, books, accessories or other aids to help you practice or perform better as a speaker. I'd like you to help me crowd-source a list of products you'd buy if you had this hypothetical $1000 to spare by checking out offerings on Amazon.com, then post your list here in the comments. I'll get the ball rolling with my own list of favorite items that you may find useful:


  • An electronic document reader like the Kindle, Amazon's 6-inch wireless reading device, or the Kindle DX, Amazon's 9.7 device. They'd take up a lot of my hypothetical $1000 budget, but will let you make notes, import documents (like speeches and notes) and carry them all without fluttering any pages. And you can have the device read your speeches to you to hear how they sound.
  • A good timer/stopwatch combination, like the Polder 898-95 Clock, Timer and Stopwatch, so you can keep tabs on your remaining time, and test yourself on how long your presentation or talk runs when you practice.
  • Some inspiration for your speaking, such as Secrets Of Superstar Speakers: Wisdom from the Greatest Motivators of Our Time, which shares top speakers' tips and encouragement.
  • A lectern, whether it's a small desktop model or the full-length version. There are all sorts of lecterns that may be useful if you expect to present in formal speaking settings. It's well worth it to have one to practice with.
  • A video camera with which to practice or record your actual presentations, so you can see how you do. I'm a big fan of the ultralight Flip UltraHD Camcorder and in September, you also can check out the new Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera, which includes a microphone jack for better recording options. Don't forget to add accessories like a small tripod so you can record yourself, by yourself.
  • Glib sayings from other, more famous speakers: I like Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists for this purpose, but there are plenty of books with quotations and inspiration to help you. Find some new favorites!
  • Books for speakers recommended on this blog: You can find them in the Amazon box in the right-hand column, or on this list of books we like for women speakers.

Because Amazon offers such a wide range of products, I hope you won't limit yourself in this hypothetical spree. Get creative and let me know what speakers want, need and covet! Share your lists in the comments section.

Related posts: Testing the Kindle on the lectern
Features on the new Kindle that aid speakers
The speaker's wish list: practice tools


choosing simple words for technical talks

Author Carl Zimmer offers this index of technical terms he banned from his class in science writing--a class in which most of the participants were science majors, not writers. He created the list as a reminder of sorts to keep things simple when attempting to address a broader public audience, a reminder that works for speakers as well as writers:

Time and again, as I reviewed the assignments from the students, I came across words would fit comfortably in a textbook or a scientific paper, but, like an invasive insect, wreaked havoc when they were introduced into a piece of writing intended for the wide world....If you talk to them face-to-face, they will never say, “I utilized my spear gun.” But somehow they can’t avoid using utilize when they are writing, when use will do just fine....What’s most important about pushing people to use plain English is that they will have an easier time expressing the passion and poetry of the scientific life.

Clearing the clutter of technical terms will not only make it easier for you to express yourself, but will ease the way for your listeners, too. I think it's essential for scientific and academic speakers to use simple, clear words when reaching a wider audience. I've been fortunate to facilitate the American Association for the Advancement of Science workshops for scientists on communicating science and to coach technical speakers from all fields. To find out more, email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

Related posts: Don't trip over your charismatic megafauna

Carolyn Bertozzi, chemist and a top woman speaker