Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"I heard there was a speaker coach who works with scientists"

"How did you hear about me?" I ask new prospective clients, if they haven't already said so.

"I heard there was a speaker coach who works with scientists," said one recently. I had to chuckle, imagining someone saying to her, "Pssst. Over here. I know a speaker coach who..." as if it were a great rarity.

But if I'm honest, that's a common answer if I'm talking to a scientist client. A climate scientist I was working with told me that a colleague at a conference heard she was working on a TED-style talk. "I know of a TED talk coach in Washington who works with scientists," said the one. "I'm working with her!" said my client.

While I work with people of all professions in my speaker coaching, the scientists keep finding me. I'm not surprised. That's not because scientists are so in need of coaching, but because so many coaches handle scientist speakers poorly, or avoid them entirely. The CEO of a well-regarded firm that does a lot of speaker coaching announced to a roomful of foundation executives, "I can train anyone but a scientist." In the back of the room, I thought, "I'll take 'em." And in my career as an in-house communications director, I've hired coaches who told our scientists, "Your content is the least important part of your presentation," misquoting research to say that appearance and voice--that coach's specialty--were most important. You can imagine the scientists were not happy...and they were right to doubt the statement. Others promised they could, in a three-hour half-day session, work with the scientist to create a TED talk, or gave them a template for a TED talk, when no such thing really exists--why would TED want talks from the same template?

I've written on my other blog about training a group of scientists with The Nature Conservancy to give TED-quality talks. For Bob Lalasz, former director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and the person who hired me for that assignment, finding the right coach for a group of scientists was essential. He says, "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."

I'm comfortable working with scientists, engineers, tech experts, and other subject-matter experts because I've been doing it nearly all of my career, first as a health journalist, later as a communications leader in institutions known for their research: a health care foundation, two scientific societies, and a U.S. federal agency focused on the environment and public health. And unusually in the scientific world, I've worked with every discipline in science, medicine, and engineering, from economics and anthropology to chemistry and physics. When TEDMED called me to explore coaching for its speakers, the first question was, "Can you work with a physicist?" Why yes, I can. As an independent consultant, coach, and trainer, I've trained thousands of scientists in groups or individually, so I have thousands of use cases to share, real experiences from real scientists or technical speakers.

More important, I believe, is that I start from a place of respect with all these smart people. I'm not going to dismiss their details when I coach a speech. In fact, I recently surprised an engineer I coached by insisting that we put in more details, details he'd removed from a previous speech in an effort to make it TED-like. We got in the details, the TED-style delivery, and did it in less time, to boot. I don't, however, tolerate scientists who talk about "dumbing down" their content. Speaking briefly and clearly is much more difficult than it appears, and it's the very thing scientists have not been trained to do. But that doesn't mean the audience is dumb or needs less complex content.

I know scientists' and engineers' default communications styles and how to easily transform them to reach a broader media or public audience. And along the way, I like to teach them skills they can use again and again, and make it fun to do. Respect plus learning plus fun seems like a good formula to me.

I work with scientists 1:1 and in groups, in every sector: government, corporate, nonprofit and higher education. Let me know if you, too, are looking for a coach who's comfortable with them, for media training or speaker coaching, with an email to eloquentwoman AT gmail.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by evan p. cordes)

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