How I prepared for my March for Science talk

I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC on April 22. Last week, I gave the text of my talk. This post talks about how I prepared for the talk. Tomorrow, I’ll have a post with more on the day of the march.

tl;dr for this post: it takes a whole lot of time to prepare a 2 minute talk. And, when talking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people, you need to leave time for applause; stick to the guideline of 150 words per minute, even if you think you speak faster than that.

When I first agreed to speak at the March for Science, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to use the time to talk about (and I didn’t initially know how long my slot would be). I was still in shock that I’d been asked in the first place! My first idea was to modify the opinion piece I’d just published about how costly it can be when we don’t have strong environmental protections. But I wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted to talk about, especially because I knew that I also wanted to talk about issues related to diversity in science.

I agreed to give the talk a few minutes before heading off to my lab meeting. When I got to lab meeting, my student was talking about her data. The data weren’t new to me – we’ve been working intensively on a manuscript based on her research – but the juxtaposition of having just agreed to give this talk and her talking about her data ended up being really fortuitous. As I sat there, I realized that this was exactly what I needed to talk about. Talking about her project would let me talk about both the value of basic research and the importance of diversity in science. Those are both messages I really wanted to be able to get across, and I thought that this particular story would resonate.

After spending a day thinking it over and becoming more and more convinced that this was the right story to tell for the talk, I raised the idea with my student to see if she was comfortable with it. She was (though preferred not to be named directly in the talk). As I walked home, I called my mother and tried to explain the march to her and to tell her what I was thinking of talking about. When I was trying to explain the latter, I said something like: “You know, I want to try to reach the people like dad who always ask ‘But how is this going to help people?’” As I said it, I realized that I should incorporate that into the talk.

As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote out my ideas. I spent a bit of time working on it over the next few days (and checked in again with my student to make sure she was still okay with me telling the story), but then put it down for several days. I still kind of didn’t believe that they really would want me to speak and felt like maybe I should wait until they released the speaker list. (After a few emails from right around when I was asked and agreed to speak, there was a lull where I didn’t hear much.) But then at some point I realized I needed to get back to work on it, even though the speaker list still wasn’t out. It’s a good thing I didn’t wait until the speaker list was made public, since that didn’t happen until the day before the march!

I spent 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 that 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. So, the weekend before that, I created two versions of the talk, one of which had a punchier start (this is the one I ended up using) and one of which included more explanation at the start (explaining to the reader that I was going to talk about the value of basic research). After talking with two science communication experts and trying out both of the talks, I decided to go with the punchier version, which we thought was better for a general audience. I sent that 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 this piece (which I’d read when it first came out) about learning a TED talk and was glad to see that some of the strategies I was planning (especially listening to a recording of myself giving the talk and practicing while running) were ones that he felt had been 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.) From then on, I focused on having a neutral face at the end of the talk.
  3. After the videographer sent me the clips, I made an audio version of my favorite one and put that on my phone.

After that, I spent as much time practicing my talk as I could. My goal was to get to happy birthday level with the talk, but I also had a lot of other things I needed to work on that week. So, 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.

Tuesday morning, I listened to my recording on my phone over and over and over again as I ran and started to try to say it along with it. That evening, I practiced my talk at the playground again. On Wednesday morning’s run, I practiced 15 second loops over and over and over while I was running. On Thursday morning’s run, I realized as I listened to it the first time that I knew it and spent the rest of the talk just giving it to myself without playing it. Over the course of the week, I also practiced my talk 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.

On Thursday morning, I practiced for someone from RELATE who gave me delivery tips, as well as tips for what to do at the rehearsal and on the day of. The tips for what to do the day of ended up being especially useful. (More on that tomorrow!)

Thursday afternoon, just before heading off to a series of meetings that would take me right up until when I had to go to daycare, I got an email saying they wanted the talk to be 300 words. It was 435, so that represented a really big change. I had almost no work time left before my flight the following morning (given all the meetings and having no work time in evenings). I was worried about trying to change the talk at the last minute and having a trainwreck, given that I’d spent the past week getting the longer version of the talk down cold. And I was frustrated because the earlier emails had said a 2 minute limit, not a word limit. (One email from the previous weekend had indicated a guideline of 150 words per minute but, based on my practice, I was talking faster than that, so I thought my longer version would be fine.) I was also confused about why they were saying 300 words = two minutes, since my 435 word talk was about 2:20 when I tried it, speaking at a normal conversational pace, and I felt pretty sure I would go faster when I was on stage due to nerves.

When I woke up Friday morning, I decided to cut a couple of lines from my talk and send that in as a revised version. But I still was worried about whether changing it was a bad idea, given how much time I had spent memorizing it. And I really wished the 300 word limit had been made clear earlier.

On Friday afternoon, I got to the grounds at about 4, meaning that I had an hour to kill before my scheduled rehearsal time. I got my speaker badge


and then entered the mall to walk towards the stage. As I walked up, my jaw dropped a little as I realized how close the stage was to the Washington monument.


Too bad the weather wasn’t this nice for the march!

I killed time listening to what I thought was a band practicing a cover of She Blinded Me with Science. It turns out I was getting a private concert from Thomas Dolby without realizing it! At least I got some video.

We were delayed in starting practice (including because of lightning in the area, which meant we all had to shelter in a trailer until it was no longer within 8 miles), but finally I was in line on stage waiting to practice. One of the headliners, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, was in line right behind me. I asked how long she got for her talk, assuming the headliners got longer. She said 2 minutes — I’d been sure the headliners would get longer! As we talked more, she mentioned how long her talk was; I can’t remember the exact number, but it was something like 285 words. That made me worried that my talk really was too long.

When I got out on stage to practice, I was relieved to find that the teleprompter was really easy to read from. It was neat how it worked — there was a monitor on the floor with the talk and then a mirror up at eye level that reflected the talk. The thing to the right of my head in this image is one of the two mirrors/teleprompters:


The ease of reading off the teleprompter made me less concerned about further shortening my talk – as long as there was still time for them to edit things!

So, back at my hotel, I cut some more from my talk. And I’m really glad I did. Even with the additional cuts, it 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! I’m not sure whether I’ll ever give a talk like this again, but, if I do, I will know to really stick to the guideline of 150 words per minute. And I will also know that, even with a really busy work and life schedule, by being creative, it’s still possible to work in time to learn a (short) talk to happy birthday level in the span of one week.

I’ll have one more post on my march for science experience, focusing on the day of the talk. That’s in the queue for tomorrow!

* RELATE is teaching a free online science communication course May 5-7. (They estimate the course will be 3-4 hours total.) It’s called Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters. I originally was going to say I wasn’t involved, but, over time, I’ve become more involved with it. I was interviewed for it, I’m in the background on one of the flyers, and, most recently, I’ve agreed to moderate a couple of discussions during it.

**We wanted to make it as similar to the actual event as we could, so he looked for a podium. Except he couldn’t find a full one, so I practiced with a half podium that was on top of a chair. This felt pretty silly — as did giving my talk to the microwave in the basement of the Michigan News building — but I do think it was good that we tried to get it as similar to the real thing as possible.

4 thoughts on “How I prepared for my March for Science talk

  1. Thanks for sharing this Meghan. Do you think there are some generalizable lessons here for anyone preparing a talk? I see at least three:

    -If you know you’re going to be nervous, and/or it’s a short talk with a firm time limit, memorize it word-for-word and tone-for-tone, like an actor memorizing lines. And if that makes you sound overrehearsed, well, overrehearsed is much better than underrehearsed. That’s exactly how I prepped my first ESA talk as a grad student. And even today, I still write my all my talks (even the long ones) word for word, though these days I don’t memorize them quite to “Happy Birthday” level and so on the day I might say slightly different words than the ones I wrote.

    -It’s ok to be nervous. It’s normal. Even experienced faculty get nervous before talks. Ok, not everybody gets nervous, or gets nervous to the same degree, but plenty of people do. Learning to give good talks isn’t a matter of not being nervous, though with experience you may well become less nervous. It’s learning how to give good talks anyway.

    -Get feedback on your talk from people in the target audience. Your target audience was non-scientists, and so you got feedback and ideas from your mom, who’s not a scientist. For, say, an ecologist giving a job talk to a biology dept., you could get feedback from some biologists who aren’t ecologists. You need to be able to anticipate and address your audience’s needs. What are they expecting to hear, what questions are they likely to have, etc.

    Also, I am impressed with your ability to practice while also playing red light, green light with a four year old. 🙂

    • Yes, I think your three general lessons are good ones. One other one I might add is that it’s good to practice in lots of different settings. One thing I was told is that, if you only practice in one place (say, your office), then you might not feel comfortable giving the talk in a different setting. So, in some ways, I think it was actually very useful that other constraints on my schedule made it so that I had to practice in weird places. When I was able to do it while playing red light green light, I decided that was a sign that I had reached happy birthday level. 🙂

      The Wait But Why piece (which is where you go if you click on the link when I talk about “happy birthday level”) has some really good cartoons/figures about boringness and scariness of different levels of talking. With a really short talk, winging it and talking through a set structure (but without following an exact script) aren’t really options. The “Public Speaking Methods: Pros and Cons” summary is a good one, I think, as is the figure after it.

      I am even more impressed by TED speakers memorizing 7-10 minute talks now, getting them to the happy birthday level! I think it would have taken me much more work to learn a talk of that length.

      The experience reminded me of being a freshman in college, when I took a poetry course and we had to memorize some poems. I remember walking around campus saying them to myself on my way to and from classes. I think you’re right about it being similar to what an actor would do. When I first saw the link to the piece back when it came out, I’m pretty sure that I saw it with a tweet commenting on how it was similar to an actor memorizing lines. But, since my acting days stopped when I was in elementary school, I can’t remember what it was like to try to memorize my lines!

      • “I am even more impressed by TED speakers memorizing 7-10 minute talks now, getting them to the happy birthday level! I think it would have taken me much more work to learn a talk of that length.”

        I will now impress you even more than TED speakers. 😉 I’m fortunate to be able to get to “Happy Birthday” level pretty quickly when I need to, even for a long talk. Back in high school I was a tour guide in a cave. The tours lasted about 45 minutes. I only had to shadow another guide twice to learn the entire tour cold. Same for when I gave campus tours to prospective students in college. In both cases it helped that there were many visual cues, which of course there are in a scientific talk as well if you have slides.

        Going off on a tangent: I think of bloggers like you, Brian, and I as tour guides to ecology (or to science or academia). I think the fact that I like tour guiding and have experience doing helps me a bit as a blogger.

  2. Pingback: Revolution: Congrats to all my co-Science Marchers and Especially Meghan Duffy (please check out her blog post on preparing her speech at the march)! | sexandfoodand

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