Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Geeks who can speak

“We tend to think about storytelling as confined to fiction or entertainment,” Britos Cavagnaro says. “But storytelling is a primal human activity, and there is no reason why it can’t be leveraged as an effective way to communicate science.” Cavargno used a Charlie Chaplin movie as the ‘plot’ for her biology Ph.D. thesis  at Stanford.

“Stories behind the science” has turned into a theme for me this week.

On Monday I interviewed mathematician and writer Dr Robyn Arianrhod, author of two non-fiction best sellers, Einstein’s Heroes, and Seduced by Logic, about female mathematicians and theoretical physicist: Émilie du Châtelet.

Emilie has a fabulous story:  a vivacious  18th  century aristocrat, wife and mother, she sang, danced and gambled at cards until she met ‘the people who think’, when she  began developing her formidable intellect, and had a long love affair with Voltaire. She then made lasting and significant contributions regarding the nature of light, and produced the first french  translation of  Newton’s Principia Mathematica, just before dying giving birth at the age of 42.

Emilie’s efforts were prodigious, but Dr Arianrhod says  more importantly, that her clear and intelligible writing brought scientific discoveries to a much wider audience. The symmetry of it struck me: Emilie brings Newton  to a wider audience,  Dr Arianrhod brought her to a wider audience.

And then, a friend told me how much she’d enjoyed a presentation by  Astronomer Fred Watson, on the nature of light. Watson is hugely popular  for his amusing and informative way of bringing astronomy to the masses of people who want to know about it. Decended, as he puts it, ‘from a long line of Freds’ he has ‘spent so many years working in large telescope domes that he has started to look like one’. He has a regular ABC radio slot answering listener questions, and he is generous on the speaking circuit,  appearing frequently at events and conferences and to astronomical societies, schools and public groups.

To taste his talent watch his recent TedX talk here.

Bringing science to a wider audience is a major focus of scientific professional associations, and university education. It’s critical for policy debates, grant funding, for career advancement,   and  of course for keeping an interested public informed and aware.

As in many jobs, the ability and intellect that makes  you an expert in one area does not necessarily make  you a great communicator. Yet, if you’re an expert, people will be  hungry for your help in understanding  complex problems. Converting specialised knowledge into compelling presentations is a skill that can be learned.

If you’d like to know how, the American Association for the Advancement of Science ran this excellent three part series on communicating better,  as part of its career advancement program.  And  here is more detailed and  comprehensive advice from The Eloquent Woman – one of my very favourite public speaking coaching blogs, and a refresher on how to make your stories interesting, and clues about communicating data.

One comment on “Geeks who can speak

  1. Natashatasha Eves
    30/11/2012

    I saw Fred Watson at this TedX event – he was clearly the most engaging speaker, and the highlight of the day. Being entertaining on a technical subject is a very different skill to either ‘knowing the subject’ or ‘being entertaining’, but requires both skills!

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