Thursday, January 22, 2015

Do you have clinician's distance when telling stories? How to recover

"Tell me more about that student," I said to the physician I was coaching. We were working on a story she could tell as part of a talk she'd be giving to donors. "What does she look like?"

"You mean her physical data?"

"Yes, but let's call it hair color, height, weight, freckles, whatever." And that's when I diagnosed my client with the only thing I'm licensed to identify: Clinician's distance when speaking to a public audience.

You don't have to be an actual clinician to have this public speaking problem, though it happens more frequently among medical professionals, scientists, engineers, and technology experts. If you're in an academic or research or clinical setting, it's expected that you'll strip out the emotion and personal details, or hold them at arm's length to examine them. Anyone pursuing graduate-level education will be taught not to put themselves into presentations, over and over again, until it becomes habitual to distance yourself from the personal. And don't get me started on specialists who invent multi-syllabic terms for the simplest words we'd all recognize.

Sometimes, that's a matter of professional shorthand--you want one term, not several specific ones, to signal to a colleague what you're talking about. Sometimes, on the other hand, you may be doing what Sam Leith, author of Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, noted at the UK Speechwriters Guild conference last year: Hiding behind an obfuscating term because, if you were to be understood, you might be found banal. That fear of being too obvious and boring, of not adding to the intrigue, is a common one among experts and specialists. But in my mind, it's the wrong way to go about intriguing your audience.
Now that we've diagnosed you, what's the prescription? Here are some tactics that have worked for my clients:
  • Turn that clinical eye to your personal stories: You'll be at ease describing data in your talk, but when it comes to describing yourself, your family members, stressful personal moments and the like, watch out for words and phrases that will distance you from your subject, just when we want to see some passion and emotion. If you're speaking about your recently deceased father but don't show some emotion, we'll see you and that story differently than you're hoping. Identifying your trouble spots in a talk is the first step to changing your approach.
  • Think about your motivation for using the $10 words: If you're choosing more complicated terms, or dispassionate ones, because you feel you'll sound better, more important, or well-educated, think again. As Einstein said, "If you can't explain it to your grandmother, you don't understand it well enough." The ability to communicate with anyone, not just people in your specialty, requires language we can all follow--and it is the more difficult skill to master.
  • Don't forget that with techspeak, you're speaking to a truly narrow audience: When you use the language of your specialized training, you may not just be missing the public audience you want to reach. You're probably just as confusing to other researchers and clinicians with different specialties, since they all use their own jargon and technical terms--often, with one term meaning very different things across specialties. Find those universally understood words instead to reach both technical and non-technical listeners, and expand your audience.
  • Think back before your training: You learn an entirely different vocabulary in your training as a researcher or clinician. But how would you describe this scene/person/moment before all that knowledge? How would you describe it to your children? Your younger self? Your smart teenage niece? Reaching back for everyday terms from your past may help you put the point across in the present.
  • Know that sometimes, emotion is appropriate: Sometimes it's the occasion that permits emotion--as in speeches at weddings or funerals--and sometimes, it's the moment you're describing that demands it. Speakers' visible and audible emotions help the audience interpret what you are saying. So if you're describing something joyous, I'm going to want to see a smile on your face. Likewise, choking up with emotion when you are describing a difficult personal moment is not only entirely understandable, but appropriate. No one in the audience will fail to understand and accept it. If you instead give a wedding speech or TED talk that sounds as if you're delivering an academic paper, on the other hand, you're not fitting the speech to the occasion.
  • Emotion can be a handle that lets us grasp your complex topic: The audience may not understand entirely or at all your work in nanotubes, immunology, or engineering new mechanical devices that will save lives in surgery. But your emotions and some personal details can give your listeners a path to getting there with you. If you inject some personality by telling us what inspired you to pursue this research, how you felt when a particular patient was helped by your work, or what's most frustrating to you about the search for answers, we'll be able to relate to that...and we'll be more likely to listen further.
I've worked for two major scientific societies and national health and environment organizations, so training technical experts is one of my areas of expertise. Let me know if you need a workshop or coaching around closing that clinician's distance from your audience. Just email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com to get started.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by John Twohig)

Come to my pre-conference workshop at the Spring Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference in Cambridge, UK, this April. What goes into a TED-quality talk will help speakers, speechwriters and conference organizers understand how to craft and deliver a talk in the style of TED, whether you're getting ready for a TEDx conference or just a presentation in this popular style. Go to this link  for more details on what's included, as well as a significant discount for readers of The Eloquent Woman. The workshop is on 15 April, and the conference is 16-17 April. Please join me!