Thursday, January 14, 2016

Talk About the Talk: Connie Trimble, MD, on kicking cancer's butt

(Editor's note: In this series, Talk About the Talk, I'm asking speakers I've worked with to share their perspectives about giving big or important talks. Just this week, President Obama announced in his State of the Union speech a new "cancer moon shot" effort to speed results from cancer research, appointing Vice President Joe Biden to spearhead the effort. This talk is about the kind of results I think they are hoping for: Connie Trimble, MD, spoke at TEDxBeaconStreet in 2015 about her groundbreaking work to develop a vaccine for cervical cancer, a cancer with few treatment options. In early clinical trials, therapeutic vaccines are curing half the patients. These are setting the stage for developing immune-based therapies for cancer patients. It was such a thrill for me to work with her on a talk that doesn't dumb down the research, yet makes it clear for all. I think you can see and hear that in the audience's response. While it's not unheard of for a TEDx talk to be interrupted by applause and get a standing ovation, it's not a frequent occurrence. Please do go here to see the video of her talk or watch it below!)

What was your motivation for doing this talk? 

For me, the talk was an incentive to do something I knew I had to learn to do, with a hard stop deadline. I wanted to be able to articulate what I do, why I do it, and how I do it. I am pretty introverted, so I knew this experience would be a great opportunity to step out. Plus, we are really starting to make headway with our work, and I wanted to tell a story that could give hope. I wanted to meet the challenge of telling a complicated science story as a narrative that anyone could understand and appreciate.

How did you prepare? who helped you and how?

OMG. I worked and worked on my slides. Actually, I started having fun working on them. I wrote out what I would be saying with each image, using the ‘notes’ view in Power Point. Once I got close to a ‘story’, I practiced it on everybody. I practiced it on my cousins. I practiced it on my colleagues who do not do what I do. I practiced it on my gym buddies. Heck, now my cats know all about cancer vaccines. I edited my narrative until it was understandable to everyone.

After that, I memorized it. No joke. It’s the first time I have ever done that. I practiced it with a dear friend who is an NPR guy, so I learned about “NPR voice”. It is very different, much more cadenced, from the voice I was accustomed to using when giving a talk. He also showed me how to start moving, just a little bit. He is a conductor, so he showed me how to come on stage and acknowledge the room. At first, I was too stiff, and he told me to loosen up already, that I looked like Lurch. J Ohhhhhh, I get it.

I recorded myself, looking at my notes when I forgot bits. That was useful because even though I thought I was relaxed, just reading to myself, it was clear that my throat was tighter than I realized. My voice was annoying and reedy. Use ‘singing voice;' support your breathing from your diaphragm, and keep your throat loose. Even though I tried to keep that in mind, there are still parts of my talk when I think that I sounded like Howard Cosell.

I practiced it at least 50 times on another dear friend, who, in another life, was a presentation coach. That friend tweaked my narrative in ways that would never have occurred to me, and explained the rationale for each change. Each adjustment was right on the money. When I watched my video afterwards, I could see it. (‘scuse me while I go light a candle to that friend!)

Bookends: I worked with Denise, who made broad brushstrokes changes at the beginning of the process, which was very useful. I mean that she really went over my text. Toward the end, she also tweaked it. She gave me a lot of very practical advice about pacing, that kind of thing. She also did a post-mortem with me, which was also hugely useful.

What challenges did you face in preparing and how did you handle them?

I did not have any local ‘help’. But after getting over it, I contacted a graphic designer who helped me with two of my slides. I think I would have liked to have had more interactions with the TEDxBeaconStreet people. They were in Boston, and I most definitely was not. When I did fly there for orientation, and again for one rehearsal, I really enjoyed working with them, and listening to other people develop their stories. I learned a lot by watching the process. One of the people working on this year’s event introduced me to a catalyst who was a lot closer to me, and that was helpful, especially the ‘dress rehearsal’ we had the week before the actual event.

What was it like to actually give the talk? Tell us about your experience that day.

That day was a little bit surreal. I was surrounded by a lot of love; family and friends. That was wonderful. There was so much going on that a lot of it was a blur. OK, a happy blur, but a blur. It was difficult finding a quiet place. In the Green Room, a ‘handler’ introduced herself to me, and asked if I would like to run my talk on her in a quiet room. YES! She was terrific. (Merci bien) They wire you up and do a voice check while the guy ahead of you is talking. Then they say, “There’s two screens in the back of the room. One is what your slides are behind you, and the other is how much time you have left. Go out to the red dot, and try to stay toward the front of it.” Out you go. Guess what. The introduction by your session moderators counts towards your 15 minutes in the lights.

Once on stage, for many reasons, I wasn’t that nervous. For one thing, the lights were so bright, I couldn’t’ see anything beyond the first row of seats in the audience. I could hear them, though, and when I heard people reacting to what I was saying, it became a really interactive experience; it was fun.

What kind of reactions did you get to your talk?

S T A N D I N G      O !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Afterwards, people from every part of my life told me, “I understood the whole talk!!!!” That was a relief, because I had been explaining a pretty complex issue. But it’s a great story, and I appreciate having had that kind of forum to tell it.

What else should we know that we haven't asked about?

Hmm. The experience was a game-changer for me. Every interaction is different now. Preparing and giving this talk underscored something I already knew; that you have to convey to your audience not just your story, but first and foremost, that you cared enough about and respected them to put your guts into telling them about it. I learned about presentation. As an introverted person, I don’t make a lot of sound. That was not going to work at all. You have to reach out to your audience and engage with them. If you don’t, the message you convey is that you don’t give a rat’s a-ss about what they think. Now I am much more cognizant of how I interact with people, even one-on-one.

The curators are amazing people. I met people who are insanely intelligent, and yet are not cynical. People were thoughtful, articulate, and generous of spirit. It was all such a relief.