Presentation and Public Speaking for Techies and Scientific Types: Lessons from Simon Cowell

"O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us." So wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns over 200 years ago, in response to seeing a louse crawl on a pretentious woman's bonnet. I thought of that phrase recently, when listening to some brilliant technical presentations at a conference, by people who not only could not convey the passion and excitement they felt for their work, but couldn't keep most of their audience (even those who really cared) from dozing off. For most of us, the internal image we have of ourselves is light miles away from what we project to others. But, fortunately,  we do have a tool to help bridge that gap:  Video.  When preparing to go on a job interview or give a speech or presentation, why don't more people mount a video on a tripod, or ask a kind family member to tape them, run through a mock interview or presentation, see how they come across, and analyze what they could change? What sounds like an exercise in narcissism is instead, a service to the audience.  It's painful to watch, but offers some concrete insights into how you appear to others.  This can be especially important for job seekers.  Do you appear too anxious (like the interviewee who sprang up to his feet during one interview and, despite invitations to relax and sit down, stayed there for the duration?), Do you appear too eager to please?  Is your eye contact at just the right level:  not glaring, but with an honest gaze that connects with others'...or do you sometimes avoid eye contact?  Can your attempts to look serious come across as "mean looking"? Are you able to carry off sweeping hand gestures during a presentation, or do you simply look ridiculous? It's important, when speaking publicly, to "project."  Most scientific and technical specialists just don't "get this."  They expect the work that they're doing to speak for itself.  And, for some of their erudite colleagues, it will.  But it won't, for the executives, who require broad brush strokes and some flair. You can't be "just folks" and handle a presentation as you would a water cooler conversation, or the results will be boring.  And "projecting" doesn't just cover your voice, but your whole presentation.  If your aim is to come across as modest and humble, you will still have  to exaggerate some gestures and project your voice, even for that image to come across,  or you'll appear mumbling and incoherent. And "projecting" requires being fit and well prepared, and having some concept of how you're coming across... Doing this is high on my resolution list for this year. But what brought on this little rant was the start of another season of "American Idol," and a host of other reality shows (such as BBC's Grease: You're the One That I Want)  that delve  into the audition process, providing more evidence than we ever wanted, of this disconnect between self-image and outward image.  One recent contestant on Grease was a 42-year-old mom from Brooklyn.  She sang very well and had a great personality, and was clearly likeable, but wasn't really right for playing a 17-year-old.  "Don't you have a mirror at home?" one of the judges asked, which made me wonder why she put herself in that situation.  The producers, cruelly, brought a camera crew to her home, showing her serving dinner to her family before leaving for the audition.  Did they have to do that?) Ironically, if it's video that can help people overcome this problem, it was video that created this disconnect in the first place.  Saturated with slick and well-rehearsed music videos, some people get the idea that "anyone can do that," or "I can sing better than X."   They have no idea of the hard work and training involved in doing it even passably well.  Learning to sing more than a few tunes professionally is like training for the marathon, and doing that plus dancing requires even more hard work.  The same holds for studying science.  How many high school students reason, "I get B+'s in science courses.  Maybe I should become a scientist." (They then find themselves in an extremely competitive arena where only the top 10% of the world's students can really find high-paying and satisfying work---students in India start prepping for their college entrance exams at age 10)  My eldest daughter has been watching Idol for the past few years, for laughs---and I watch it with her, as  it is also very educational. There are some folks who try out "as a dare" and just for the sake of getting on T.V., but most appear genuinely deluded. Sad was watching engineer William Hung from Berkeley a few years ago...colleagues egged him on to sing during an engineering school talent show, he received some notoriety from his auditions on Idol, female fan groups sprang up and his parents reportedly sank their savings  into an ill-starred movie career abroad.  I do hope he's gone back to school... And so, in the spirit of Robert Burns, I attach the following very brief video clips.  Think about them before your next speech or interview, or before the next time you have to convince management of the ROI of your next proposal (and then get out that video camera). Idol may be a silly pop show, but Simon Cowell is doing the world, and the field of human psychology, a great service, in highlighting the perception-versus-reality gap. -AMS