Friday, July 20, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Diane Kelly on what we don't know about penis anatomy

Diane Kelly studies the neural wiring and mechanical engineering of reproductive systems, and on TED.com, the video of her most recent major lecture on that topic is approaching a half-million views at this writing.

That's because it's about penises, how they work, and what we don't know about them. "Now you know why I'm fun at parties," she said, early in the talk.

A senior research fellow at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Kelly gave what might be the most-talked-about talk at this year's TEDMED conference, and it was a merry mashup of science, real-life questions, and her curiosity about the questions that didn't have answers. That curiosity led her to her current research focus, even though it was "a socially embarrassing question with an answer [my adviser] didn't think would be that interesting." In her summing up, she noted, "He couldn't have been more wrong…We still have a lot to learn about the normal structure and function of our bodies.”

For this talk, Kelly--a mom who had just explained how penises work to her nine-year-old the week before the talk--used the same kind of fun, relaxed and easy-to-understand language she has put to use in card games and children's books she's written about science. Her explanations included lines like "Most animals don't support their tissues by draping them over bones, but they're more like reinforced water balloons" or "when they're functioning, penises don't wiggle. So there had to be something going on."

On her blog Science Made Cool, Kelly wrote about how she prepared for the TEDMED talk:
[W] hat's it like to give one of these big public talks? It's certainly different from a university classroom. First off, the audience is bigger. A lot bigger. Average size of my audience when I teach? About 50. TEDMED was held at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, and every seat on the main floor was filled. And that's not counting all the medical schools who were livestreaming the event. Intimidating? You bet. Add in the knowledge that the video was going to be on the internet, maybe forever, and you can understand why I was motivated to put a lot of time into writing and rehearsals The talks are also shorter than a class or a seminar. Classes and department seminars usually take about 45 minutes. The TEDMED limit? 12 minutes....So when I planned my talk, I had to pick exactly one result from my research and build the talk around it. No graphs, no statistics, just the story leading up to that result and the reason it was meaningful.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Make it clear why your odd or unusual topic is relevant to this audience: Early on, Kelly clearly states her belief that studying anatomical and tissue similarities and differences across species can yield important insights for human health. She studies animals, but her findings have broader application, and she wants to make sure they won't be overlooked as a source of insight. For the assembled audience of health care professionals and policymakers at TEDMED, this answered the "so what?" question that's usually on the minds of the audience. And her deadpan delivery allows for the fact that the audience is thinking in double entendres--but it doesn't slow her down.
  • Be a three-dimensional expert: Without effort, Kelly lets you know by the end of her talk that she's a mom who just had to explain this to her nine-year-old, that she's fun at parties (and has heard all the obvious jokes), and that she's not afraid to stick up for her research when she's been told it's all been done before. For scientists and other subject-matter experts, it's important to show us all the sides of your personality and those parts of your life to which we non-experts can relate.
  • Enthusiasm carries the crowd with you: Public audiences and audiences of non-scientists may not know every nuance of your research, but boy, can we go along with someone who's clearly enthused about her explorations and willing to take us along for the ride. It's impossible to watch this talk without understanding Kelly's passion--and seeing how it drove her to a major advance in a field once considered to be a closed topic. That makes us wonder what else there is left to learn, and helps us understand the scientist's quest a bit better. No slides, charts or graphs were needed to put that across, just Kelly's expressive vocals and energetic delivery.
This talk is not-quite-but-almost-safe-for-work, but it is a must-see. I had the chance to see this one up close at TEDMED, and it's a personal favorite of mine. What do you think of this famous speech?