Thursday, September 8, 2016

Coaching a cadre of scientists to give TED-quality talks

Many companies and organizations underestimate the public-speaking abilities of the scientists they employ, even as they believe those skills are critical in making science more widely understood. And scientists--taught a completely different framework for communicating their academic work--often find the methods for speaking to non-scientists opaque, mysterious, and frustrating.

But there's one other wrinkle that sometimes trips up the process of turning scientists into public speakers: The coach. You've heard me talk before about hearing one prominent coach declare, "I can train anybody but a scientist," a truly wince-inducing remark that seems to suggest it's the scientists who are somehow deficient. In fact, they are more demanding than you may know. Bob Lalasz, former director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy, puts his finger on it: "Scientists demand credibility — from each other, and from anyone who trains them. When I was looking for a presentation coach for The Nature Conservancy’s Science Impact Project — a professional development program for some of the Conservancy’s most promising early- and mid-career scientists — I needed someone who would impress them immediately, speak their language and be able to work with scientist psychologies to get great results. Denise Graveline was my first choice."

The program required participants in one year to learn how to do TED-style presenting, and made it optional for the rest of the participants in this leadership development program. We used an approach that has worked for many of my clients, nonprofit or corporate, mixing group and 1:1 coaching. The initial group workshop introduces the TED talk and important considerations--such as the fact that there's no one format for these talks--and helps participants begin to develop a talk about their research, based on a questionnaire I give them before the workshop. They get time to talk about and work on their talk concepts and get help with them. After the workshop, we set up 1:1 coaching and script reviews over a series of months to help them polish and practice the talks. For some cohorts, TNC also videotaped the talks or created presentation opportunities for them to be delivered.

I worked closely with the program's manager, Katie Dietrich Curran, to deliver the training and coaching, in some cases expanding on the original brief. I asked her a few questions to explore how this coaching approach worked for the program:

Where does TED-style training fit in your leadership program for scientists? 

KDC: TNC scientists are increasingly being asked to share their research with donors, decision-makers, and internal non-science audiences. Sometimes these audiences require an element of storytelling in presentations that is not typical of a scientist's training or experience. The TED-style approach provides another tool in the toolbox for communicating the tremendous and exciting stories of conservation science

Did you have specific goals for their TED talks?

KDC: We wanted the SIP scientists to develop not only versatile talks, but also skills and tools to use the TED-style approach in a variety of venues. Several scientists have used variations of their talks by lengthening or shortening the content or producing blog posts, or even taking elements of TED-style into an more academic talk. One scientist brought seaweed from Belize to a science meeting in Canada to provide context and story to her talk, and a little amusement in crossing customs. We are also recording these talks so scientists have documentation of their speaking abilities, content, and ability to use the TED–style approach to share widely and promote for further speaking opportunities.

How did they react to the option of learning this speaking format?

KDC: There was a mix of enthusiasm and concern about learning this speaking format as it took scientists outside their comfort zone, but into a model and tool that is recognized as approachable to the varied audiences Conservancy scientists are increasingly talking to. Several of our international scientists were concerned about pursuing this approach, but the TED-style is becoming more and more global and the elements of storytelling can fit into many cultures. Denise did a fantastic job creating the excitement for the TED-style approach even with the potential for cultural differences, and the 1:1 coaching enabled conversations tailored to the appropriateness of a participant’s culture.

And Denise adds: Since TED talks really are a global phenomenon, with 10,000+ TEDx conferences having been held all over the world, I can provide lots of examples from countries other than the United States--and even share videos translated into many languages. Since TNC scientists are scattered all over the world, we did the workshops at already-scheduled meetings of the Project's participants, and conducted the 1:1 coaching remotely by phone or Skype, sharing script drafts, videos, and other resources by email, Skype, or Dropbox. For this project, I trained scientists in Australia, Belize, California, China, Georgia, Indonesia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mongolia, Palau, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia...without traveling to them or vice versa, except for the workshops.

What would you recommend to others considering training a group of leaders in this way?

KDC: We learned after the first group that SIP participants struggled with what to do next once they developed a talk, as well what to do with recordings. The scientists did not all have particular speaking venues in mind when developing the talk, so this reduced the urgency in completing the coaching. I would recommend having a particular event to use the talks already in mind and also encourage rounding out the experience by revisiting what to do with the talks and recordings at completion which we asked of Denise later in the training program.

I'll add a few more notes to Katie's comments:
  • Having a scheduled talk to work toward really does improve results and participation, even if you are creating an event for that purpose.
  • Everyone participating in this training had access to my tips for promoting their talks and what to do with the videos, not only in tip form and in our workshops, but through additional webinars that let participants from many cohorts ask questions about what to do next. You can see examples of scientist bios revised to incorporate their speaking experience from TNC's Sally Palmer, director of science for TNC in Tennessee;, Jon Fisher, senior conservation scientist at TNC's Center for Sustainability Science;  and Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for TNC in Louisiana have updated their profiles in this way. Adding speaking experience to your bio is an easy way to let conference organizers find and evaluate you as a speaker, and lets them know you are interested, as well as seasoned.
  • The scientists chose the length of their talks, from 5 minutes to 18 minutes. Those choosing shorter lengths were shown how to expand them for longer time slots; those with longer scripts learned how to reduce them to shorter talks. Some enterprising folks created multiple talks.
  • It's entirely possible to train a group with different disciplines: These scientists ran the gamut from biology to behavioral economics, and their work ranges from forest and coral reef conservation to work conserving and protecting endangered species and engaging non-scientific groups in conservation work. That had no impact at all on the coaching process, since I have worked my entire career with every scientific discipline and use the same tactics with each scientist. I am able, however, to ask intelligent questions and help the researchers come up with metaphors, story lines, and dramatic arcs to get their research across. 
  • Producing blog posts for the TNC Cool Green Science blog is another requirement of the program, and I urged these scientists to remake their speech scripts into posts as one way of furthering their reach. Roadkill on the Ocean Highway: Can Experimental Fishing Reduce Sea Turtle Bycatch in the Pacific? by Lotus Vermeer, SIP participant and former director of the marine program for TNC in Santa Barbara, California, is just one example.
Finally, that mix of workshop training for the group, coupled with 1:1 coaching to develop individual talks, worked very well for these scientists, whose work is so varied. That's my point of view, and theirs, too. Dietrich Curran notes: "SIP participants considered the individual coaching a highlight of their SIP experience and most beneficial to their advancement as speakers. The opportunity was considered a true testament to the investment of the Conservancy in the success of the scientists." If you're considering speaker coaching as part of your leadership development program, this really is the way to go.

Here are two of the talks captured on video: Jeff Opperman, speaking on Dams, Rivers, and Drive-by Truckers, and Lizzie McLeod, speaking on The Secret to Tackling Climate Change.