Aside from Google Hangouts and Skype, it was the first time I'd been on video since my friend caught me singing to Spice Girls several years ago. I'd picked a high pressure venue for my return to video—the ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans. I was scheduled to give a short talk on Monday about scientists and social media. On Sunday though, I found myself in a small room in the convention center for a previously unscheduled coaching session on video with Susan Tomai, founder of Oratorio, a DC-based company offering media and presentation training.
ASCB brought Tomai and a small team to New Orleans to coach meeting presenters who'd signed up in advance for the training. I hadn't signed up for anything but a sudden cancellation landed me in the coaching spotlight under the unblinking video eye. There we were, Tomai and her camera operator, and me. I felt as nervous as the day I defended my dissertation. This would be immortalized.
To assess my presentation skills, Tomai fitted me up with a wireless microphone, took away the comfort of the podium, and had me face the camera to give my opening. I felt exposed. Without a podium, where would I hide? I didn't get very far before Tomai stopped the show."Your voice is fine, but you've got all your weight on one hip, you're fidgeting with your hands, and your opening is too complicated," Tomai stated bluntly. She called me over so she could go over my entire presentation. Her diagnosis: My opening needed to be stronger.
"Start with something compelling, like the number of people who use social media," she suggested. "Make the opening slide simple, just the big number. Use words like 'you,' 'benefit' and 'love.'" Tomai advised me to use bullet points one at a time, to make slides and text as simple as possible, and to use sounds, pictures, and video to engage different learners.
A presenter should never stay behind a podium, she explained. Start the presentation by walking toward the audience, plant both feet when not walking, and go slowly and gracefully across the stage. We simplified the opening and Tomai told me to try it again.
I came out walking straight toward the camera, anchored my feet, and launched into my opening lines. I felt like I was doing a TED talk on power poses. By walking toward my intimidating audience and striking a powerful pose, I was less afraid. My posture was good and I felt a tingle of power and control. And I had to admit that the simplified opening was easier to remember.
But at an international meeting of cell biologists, not all presentations that Tomai was coaching were on an easy-to-understand subject like social media. She said she took the scientific complexity as a challenge but always fell back on fundamentals. "I can always tell what's missing and what would pull me in," Tomai said, "For most people it's not having a solid opening or close." Earlier in the day, Tomai had suggested to one cell biologist that she start with a visual metaphor for her protein-protein interactions: perhaps a clip of a couple running toward each other on a beach?
"My goal in life is to teach people to not be boring," Tomai explained. During her years as a producer for Good Morning America, Tomai realized that many guests on the show weren't able to use their moment in the media limelight because they couldn't communicate effectively on camera. Tomai decided to minister to the boring openers, the podium hiders, and those struggling to get to the point. As a media and presentation trainer, which she's been doing now for over 20 years, "I get to do what I really love," she said.
Tomai recommends that presenters practice until they memorize at least their opening and closing. She also suggests a run-through in the room where they will be giving their talk. It's important to wear a shirt with color for a presentation—a white shirt draws attention away from your face; a black shirt can make you look like a floating head.
The next day I arrived for my presentation in a blue shirt with my presentation pointer already hooked up and my wireless microphone snugly attached. There was also a long table between me and the audience so my confident charge was blocked. With less than a day to rewrite my presentation, I couldn't add and subtract everything Tomai had suggested. So my presentation wasn't quite a super-star performance.
Still, thanks to ASCB's emphasis on developing professional skills, the session helped. I wasn't as nervous and my presentation had a fast opening and a real close. Moreover Tomai's advice got me thinking about the hours of terrible talks I've sat through at science meetings. Perhaps we could all use an hour or two with the Spice Girls or a professional media trainer.