Friday, May 25, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Sally Ride's "Shoot for the Stars"

This Saturday marks Sally Ride Day, honoring the first American woman in space. It's been nearly 30 years since Ride, a physicist, flew aboard the Challenger space shuttle, but she's still one of the most recognizable astronauts and women scientists in the world.

There's nothing like being first, of course, and Ride's fame and popularity stems in part from her place in history. But Ride hasn't coasted since returning from low orbit. After the Challenger explosion in 1986, Ride was appointed to the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident. Her work on the Commission proved so valuable that she stayed at NASA headquarters to develop an influential report on the future of the space program that offered many reasons to look beyond the shuttle disaster.

Since retiring from NASA, Ride's passion has been science education and finding new ways to bring more women in science and math fields. Her company Sally Ride Science provides teaching materials to K-12 classrooms that showcase real-life role models among women and minority scientists. She's also in high demand as a speaker on science education, and her "Shoot for the Stars" lecture is one of her most-requested speeches. This version below shows why she's been asked to pilot the podium so often, and what you might be able to borrow for your own solo flights:
  • Don't skip the details. Ride opens many of her talks by describing how she became an astronaut. The short story is that she answered an ad in the Stanford school newspaper. But Ride makes a smart move by telling the story the long way instead. She talks about exactly where she was sitting in the cafeteria with the paper, where the ad was placed on the page and how she finished her NASA application that same afternoon. The details make it easy for listeners to "join" Ride as she revisits that important day, and then they're ready to move with her as she continues the speech.
  • Use slides for more than just background. Ride jokes that she's not allowed to speak anywhere unless she agrees to bring along photos from her shuttle flights. And her slides are gorgeous and unique, from the "thin blue crayon line" that delineates the Earth's atmosphere to the jet contrails woven over the busy Lisbon airport. But she carefully chooses images that will make a point for her: Science is needed to grapple with challenges like climate change and urbanization that affect all of us on the planet. For the most part, Ride is an unemotional speaker, so the slides also serve to make this point in a more eloquent way than might happen if she had to spell it out. If you're scared to embrace visual aids, consider how much work the "pretty pictures" do in this speech.
  • Say more with your Q&A. Ride smoothly handles the questions at the end of this speech, but it's interesting to watch how well she uses the Q&A to fit even more data into a data-filled speech. She's able to give guidance to a teacher who says her students think math is too difficult, and she offers some statistics on the employment outlook for engineers and technical workers. The topics are important enough to go into the main body of her talk, but she's had enough experience to know when to hold back and wait to hear what else her audience wants to know.
Here's the full speech, just in time for your Sally Ride Day celebrations. What do you think of this famous speech?