Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Before my toughest scientific talk yet.

I was tapped to speak about rice grain quality at Eastwood Mall's International Rice Festival, as part of IRRI's symposium on July 28. Two days prior to the event, I had a glimpse of just how challenging such a task was as Dr Bruce Tolentino (whose speeches and media interviews are always great studies on how to speak in public) showed me where the speakers would be located: on an elevated stage in the atrium of the mall, in the middle of foot traffic. I felt that I was about to face my toughest audience yet. This marked my first time to speak to (window) shoppers and whoever would stop and listen about the science of rice quality.

While the reality of speaking up on stage was sinking in for me, Dr Tolentino asked the most important question of them all: Do I think I can sustain an audience's attention on a scientific topic for 20 minutes in that situation? How was I supposed to do that IN A SHOPPING MALL?!?

Needless to say, I had to rethink the way I conveyed my message. Here's how I did this on the fly, sort of. Stored knowledge from reading Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen and Carmine Gallo's Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs really helped developing my story and the accompanying slide deck but I sorely missed the practice rounds and time trials I do well ahead of a presentation.

Keep it snappy. I had to cut a lot of fat from my slide deck. Originally meant for 20 minutes of presentation, the slide deck was reduced to a seven-minute talk through deleting slides and a few hours' worth of practicing. I had to master my presentation because the laptop I was to use was placed where I couldn't see the screen and my back was behind the projection. Visual aids as a crutch, gone. I felt like I was prepping for a TED talk or a MacWorld session in under two days!!

Engage the captured audience. While there were passers-by (the shoppers) who I really couldn't expect to stay, there were other people for the duration of the symposium: the exhibitors. I interviewed them hours before my talk to see how I could include their stories in my presentation (and get their attention).

Find what's in it for them. I believe that this is the best way to make sure that people stayed on and listened, in any presentation that I do. In this case, I attempted to keep the shoppers on-board by appealing to their experiences as rice consumers. To prepare for this, I talked with Val Pede, an econometrics expert, and Matty Demont, a market and value-chain expert, less than an hour before my talk to make sure that I understand and can correctly discuss the economic context of rice grain quality with minimal technical jargon.

Stumble onto carrots and then improvise. Keeping people's attention was one thing; capturing it first is a wholly different ballgame. And frankly, that was a challenge for me. Luckily, the organizers of the symposium were looking for a way of distributing a few loot bags provided by some of the exhibitors. During the last minutes before I stepped on-stage, I agreed to give them away during my talk... Problem solved!

Then, presentation time arrived. It's show time.