Denver Museum of Nature & Science teams up with Pitch Lab to help scientists improve their public speaking skills!
“What we do is very relevant, and not just to us as professionals,” Nathan Boyless, president of Metcalf Archaeology recently told a group of fellow archaeologists at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “The stories that we’re discovering out there as scientists are relevant to the broader public and it makes sense to get the message out. You are a differentiator, and how you’re presenting your idea has an effect on how it’s received.”
Nathan was introducing Pitch Lab’s session as part of “Pushing Boundaries,” a three-day symposium for archeologists hosted by Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Alongside presentations like “Re-thinking the Protohistoric Pueblo Economy in Light of Plains-Pueblo Exchange” and “A Zuni Perspective on Bears Ears National Monument,” Pitch Lab was on-hand to help scientists develop new strategies for unpacking their discoveries to the general public, colleagues and stakeholders.
“93% of what we’re communicating is actually non-verbal,” Pitch Lab founder Jay Mays explained to the audience as the session got underway. “All information is good information: body language, the voice, the inflection, the eye contact. All of that energy is important.”
Things quickly got interactive with a round of Comedy Karaoke, wherein a handful of participants shared an examples of things that trip them up when speaking in public and then delivered a one-liner from Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, or Demetri Martin.
“My goal for public speaking is never saying ‘um’, which I know I do too much,” one attendee shared, before delivering the following quip to thunderous applause: “I’m sick of following my dreams, I’m just going to ask them where they’re going and hook up with them later.”
Mays asked the speakers what they felt leading into the exercise. One common answer was “fear,” to which he exclaimed, “That’s ok! I got nervous before this.”
“It’s not about killing the butterflies,” he continued. “it’s about getting them to fly in formation. Try to reframe your nervousness as excitement. The way the body reacts to nervousness and the way it reacts to excitement are very similar.”
Mays was joined on stage by local stand-up comic Daniel Reskin, who reminded the group, “If your heart is pounding, that means you care. If your heart’s not pounding, something is wrong.”
Mays also said that you can set yourself up for success by never starting until you have the room. He suggested having someone introduce you or come out and start saying “clap if you can hear me.” The duo suggested taking time before your talk begins to introduce yourself to the front row so you can establish a connection with your audience.
Reskin and Mays then took the group through some stage presence tips from Robin Williams—chiefly that the more you practice your presentation the more natural is will seem on stage.
From there, they unpacked strategies for being visible on stage, reducing distractions, and staying present, pointing to a host of beloved comedians for examples of how to deliver material effectively. They also encouraged the group to embrace opportunities to react to the audience, to eliminate “ums” by speaking louder, and to build a cadence that uses pauses the way graphic designers use white space.
Other interactive exercises segued into the virtues of improv comedy, with participants building empathy by doing mini impersonations of a partner, matching tone and body language. This was followed by a game of shoulder-to-shoulder storytelling, with each person contributing a single word, moving down the line.
“I’m excited to break the fourth wall!” one participant shared, as the session concluded. “Most of us get up and have a script, but I’m going to try really hard to actually get people more engaged.”
The now-giddy archaeologists left Pitch Lab armed with new techniques and some suggestions of where to sharpen their skills: namely open-mic nights and improv groups.
“In your town, if there’s a thing called Peer Review, it’s stand-up comedy by scientists,” added Stephen Nash, Department Chair and Curator of Archeology at DMNS. “I’ve participated twice now and it was the hardest public speaking I’ve ever done. That’s why I fell in love with Pitch Lab: they are spot on about what these kinds of skills will do for your and for your public speaking.”
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