Friday, April 10, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Katharine Hayhoe's climate change elevator pitch

Katharine Hayhoe is exceptional in more ways than one. She's an evangelical Christian, and a climate scientist. And while the one thing science and religion may have in common is the propensity for lengthy public speaking, Hayhoe has just given an "elevator speech" about her complex topic, climate change, that anyone can understand--in just 1 minute, 21 seconds.

You've heard about the "elevator speech" before, haven't you? The idea is that you only have a short time--a journey of two or three floors in a moving elevator--to make your point. I've never actually heard a real speech in an elevator, but the idea is to force the speaker to be brief, simple, clear, and memorable. And since the idea came out of the business world, on the premise that you might be in an elevator with a rich venture capitalist, add persuasive to that list. That's a tall order for anyone, but when you add in a highly politicized topic that's complex in nature, is disaster ahead?

Not for Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University who travels widely speaking to all sorts of audiences, including faith-based communities, about her science. This elevator speech took place in an interview setting. Here's the entire exchange, and in less than a minute and half, she explains her approach, then demonstrates it:
Interviewer: What would be your elevator pitch to explain climate change? You step in an elevator and someone asks, "Are you a climate scientist? What's going on with climate change?" 
Hayhoe: I wouldn't start with the science. So, often we're told to say, with the science, it's real, it's us, it's bad, but there are solutions. So, that's the science message, but I don't think we can start right away with the science. I think we have to start with the values. So I would start by saying, I care about x, whatever I have in common with the person I'm talking to. Even if, you know, say it's somebody from west Texas. 
I care about Texas, and I care about our future. We don't have a future without water. Climate change will make that water more scarce. We know climate is changing here and around the world, we know humans are responsible, we know it's going to affect our water resources, but here are all the great things we're already doing and that we can do even more of in Texas to benefit ourselves and to give ourselves a more secure future.
Hayhoe is a great example of what's meant by public engagement in science: She respects your right to your views, will listen to them, and can share her knowledge with those she knows disagree. In an article about the attacks she has faced for speaking out on climate change, she says she gave a talk to a group of petroleum engineers in Texas. "I got an email in the past week from one of them who said ‘I still disagree, but I just wanted to tell you that you don’t deserve anything that they are saying about you because you were courteous, respectful towards me and I felt we had a good interaction’,'and I thought — that was the best email." That's grace under pressure, eloquent women! I share that because I keep encountering questions from young women speakers fearful of expressing strong opinions, lest the audience disagree. Here's a good role model for you.

What can you learn from this very short speech?
  • Focus on your audience first: As Hayhoe notes, finding common ground between you and your listener(s) is a critical part of being persuasive. Many scientists, trained to show all their work or to be informational, miss that they need to think about the audience as well as about what the speaker wants to say. Hayhoe instead leads her pitch with shared values, to good effect.
  • Yes, you can talk about complex topics clearly and briefly: There's not a word in this elevator speech that is difficult to understand due to its complexity--and yet Hayhoe strikes universal themes, draws a mental picture of what matters in the debate, and achieves a conversational starting point that doesn't shut the listener down. Not bad for a one-minute, 21-second pitch. 
  • Flip non-working approaches: "I wouldn't start with the science" are her first words to the interviewer here, then sums up the typical approach climate scientists have been taking. Trying a new approach may be just the thing you need to turn a non-starter of a speech into a hit.
I've worked with many scientists and engineers, training thousands of them to communicate with public audiences, and I'll be sharing this elevator speech as another good example. Check out the very short video below:

(Texas Tech University photo)

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