How I prepared for the biggest talk of my career: thoughts on speaking at the March for Science in DC

march

On April 22, I spoke on the main stage at the March for Science in Washington, DC, because I agreed with the march’s core principles – including regarding the need for diversity and inclusion in science, for evidence-based decision-making, and for strengthened funding for scientific research. In the weeks leading up to the march, I worked on crafting and rehearsing the talk. On the day of, I worked to overcome nerves backstage. And then I was out on stage, speaking to tens of thousands of people in DC and many more following around the world. This post combines and condenses three related posts that appeared on the Dynamic Ecology blog, talking about the experience of writing, rehearsing, and delivering the talk.

A few minutes after agreeing to speak at the March for Science, I headed off to my lab meeting where my student was practicing a talk she’d soon give at a national meeting. As I sat there, I realized that her work was exactly what I wanted to talk about. Talking about her project would let me cover two messages I really wanted to be able to get across, about the value of basic research and the importance of diversity in science, and I was pretty sure this story would resonate.

I spent a bit over a week working on the content. I had a fortuitously timed lunch that ended up leading to really useful feedback. I got feedback from folks at Michigan News. I got feedback from folks at RELATE, a University of Michigan group that focuses on science communication. I got feedback from friends and colleagues and lab members.

At one point, I was really frustrated with trying to figure out the structure. The second half of the talk (the part focused on diversity) hardly changed – the last paragraph is almost completely unchanged from the first notes I jotted down the first day. But everyone had ideas for what to add to the first half and how to order things. The problems were that I had a very tight time limit (meaning that I couldn’t add without cutting something else, but no one had suggestions on what to cut) and that the suggestions for how to order things were directly contradictory.

I knew I needed to move from working on the content of the talk to working on learning it, and had set myself a deadline of the Monday before the talk for getting the content worked out. The opening gambit remained a major question. I had two options: one punchier, the other more instructive, outlining my intention to talk about the value of basic research. This was one of those times that it really helped to work with science communication experts. Their advice was to think more about who my intended audience was, noting that the punchier one worked better for a general audience, while the instructive one worked better for scientists. I knew I wanted to try to reach a general audience, so I sent the punchier version in to the march folks on Monday morning.

At that point, I shifted to focusing on delivery of the talk. I knew I needed to practice a lot. I put my talk on index cards and started rehearsing. I went back over to the Michigan News studios, where the videographer recorded me giving the talk five times in a row. As I walked over, I reread “What Memorizing a TED Talk Did to My Brain” (a Fusion.net piece that I’d read when it first came out) and was glad to get confirmation that strategies like having oneself recorded and practicing while running were effective.

Being recorded was really useful for several reasons, including:

  1. The videographer gave me some delivery suggestions that were really useful.
  2. Watching the video, I realized that I made a face at the end of each run that indicated how I thought it had gone. (Generally: not well.)
  3. After the videographer sent me the clips, I made an audio version of my favorite one and put that on my phone.

I spent as much time practicing my talk as I could. My goal was to get to “happy birthday level” (as described in this Wait But Why post on giving a TED talk) with the talk, but I also had a lot of other things I needed to work on that week. Monday afternoon, I let the kids play at the park after school, pulled out my index cards, and gave my talk to the flag pole. I then walked around the playground giving it over and over. At one point, a dad showed up with his kid. When I finished that run through the talk, I sheepishly explained that I had a big talk on Saturday and was practicing as much as I could. Fortunately, he acted like it was totally normal for someone to be standing at the park giving a talk about basic research to playground equipment.

Over the course of the week, I listened to my recording on my phone over and over and over again; I practiced my talk while running, on my way to and from daycare, in the shower, while my husband was putting the big kids to bed, while playing red light green light with my four year old – basically, at any chance I could.

I also sought the assistance of folks from RELATE once again – as I prepared for this talk, it was very helpful to have a team of science communication experts on campus that were happy to help me work through content and delivery for this talk. The day before I flew to DC, I met with Elyse Aurbach from RELATE, who gave me delivery tips, as well as tips for what to do at the rehearsal and on the day of. Just when I thought I had a handle on my delivery, I got an email saying they wanted the talk to be 300 words. It was 435. I had almost no work time left before my flight the following morning, and was worried about trying to change the talk at the last minute and having a trainwreck on stage.

When I woke up Friday morning, I decided to cut a couple of lines from my talk and sent that in as a revised version. Still worried, I joined other speakers given the opportunity to practice their talks. My nerves were not relieved by a conversation with Lydia Villa-Komaroff, one of the headliners, who was in line behind me. Her talk was something like 285 words. This was not reassuring, but the practice went well and there was still time to make further cuts.

Even after making additional cuts, my talk ended up being just over 2 minutes. What I hadn’t factored in is that applause takes up time. In hindsight, this seems obvious, but it somehow never occurred to me that people would applaud during the talk and that I’d have to pause for that!

On the day of the talk, I struggled to remember and apply the advice I’d been given by my RELATE coaches. Starting 20 minutes before my talk, I was cautioned not to focus on the text itself. Instead, I was supposed to imagine what it would be like to give a successful talk and think of that. But, in reality, I was shivering and my teeth were chattering – both from nerves and the cold. The March for Science took place on a rainy, chilly day in the nation’s capitol, and I had taken off my jacket before heading to the production tent. About 10 minutes before I went on, I was wondering whether I would be able to talk at all – the way my teeth were chattering, I wasn’t sure that I was actually in control of my facial muscles! During that time, the band was playing, and I remembered that I’d also been given advice to take deep breaths and stand tall. A few minutes later, I realized that I felt much better. I’m not sure if it was the breathing, the posture, the band jamming, or all three, but I was no longer worried that I wouldn’t be able to form words.

Before I knew it, it was my turn to walk out. Once I stood on stage, I wasn’t nervous at all. This is how it works for me when I teach – I get very anxious about whether I will make it to class, but, once I’m there, I have no problem lecturing to 300 students at a time. I’d been hoping that ability would scale by a couple of orders of magnitude and fortunately it did.

I started my talk, saying “Hello, I’m Meghan Duffy from the University of Michigan.” (The full text of the talk – all 332 words – is at the bottom of this post.) There was a cheer as soon as I said Michigan, which startled me a little – that wasn’t something I’d expected. And it made me a little nervous as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to talk as quickly as I thought because I would need to pause when people applauded. Looking back, it’s kind of funny that I was stressed out that people were cheering!

Fortunately, it was really easy to read off the teleprompter, and I finished my talk, happy with how it had gone. And I even remembered which way I was supposed to exit the stage. I realized later in the day was that I never really noticed the people out in front of me while I was speaking. I certainly knew that there were people there, but I really only took in those assembled right near the stage, and even they didn’t fully register. Part of what made me realize that was seeing this tweet from the Little Miss Flint account:

(This picture shows the view from the stage as Little Miss Flint spoke from the speaker’s podium. The photographer is behind Little Miss Flint on the stage, looking out at the same view the speakers had.) It certainly never registered to me while I was speaking that the White House was right out there in front of me as I spoke.

In the end, it was an incredible opportunity, and I’m really grateful to have had it. I hope that my message made some people think more about the value of basic research and the importance of diversity in science. I learned more about how good science communication can and should operate. I learned, too, that sticking to the 150 words per minute guideline really is a good idea when giving a talk in such a large, public venue, and that just saying “I’m from Michigan” is an applause line.

 

Here’s the full text of the talk:

Hello, I’m Meghan Duffy from the University of Michigan.

1.5 million people die from fungal infections each year, three times the number that die from breast cancer. At present, options for treating these infections are extremely limited. Surprisingly, by studying Daphnia, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes, my lab might have discovered new drugs to treat fungal infections in humans.

My father is a retired New York City firefighter. When I talk about my research, he often asks, “But how is this going to help people?” My answer has tended to be, “it probably won’t, at least not directly”.

I was wrong. Daphnia might teach us how to fight fungal infections in people.

I began studying Daphnia because they are key links in lake food webs. As we studied Daphnia and their parasites, we were surprised to find some chemicals that prevented fungal infections in Daphnia. We are now testing to see if they also work against fungi that cause devastating infections in humans.

This is how basic research works: working on a topic with seemingly no direct relevance to humans can lead to breakthroughs that have enormous, unanticipated impacts.

This isn’t just a story about the value of basic research, though. It’s also a story about the importance of diversity in science. My student who led this research is in a federally supported program that aims to train a more diverse pool of scientists. She is addressing questions that no one thought to ask before, and getting incredibly exciting results.

It’s too early to know if my student’s work will give us the next big drug to treat fungal infections in people, but it is already abundantly clear that science is stronger because of her ideas and her research. To paraphrase Dr. Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan: talent is evenly distributed in society but, at present, opportunity is not. Science will progress further and faster if participation is broad, with people from all backgrounds able to contribute their ideas and talents to science.

Thank you.

Meghan Duffy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on aquatic and disease ecology, asking questions about why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. She received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama, the Mercer Award from the Ecological Society of America, and the Yentsch-Schindler Early Career Award from the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). She is also a Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).