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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Authenticity: just be you

By Janine Castro, PhD

I’ve been teaching a number of public speaking workshops for scientists lately and have stumbled across an interesting dilemma.  As an instructor, I make a diligent effort to model the behavior that I am trying to teach, because, after all, public speaking is a performance art. My goal, however, is not for students to emulate my style, but to create a style all their own. Demonstrating the “right” way to present invariably leads to the “wrong” way to present. I have come to the conclusion that there really is no correct presentation style, but there is your correct style.

A number of years ago, I was working with a colleague in eastern Oregon, and he insisted on wearing a cowboy hat and boots to public meetings with local landowners. He felt that by looking the part that he would gain credibility and trust with the locals. It backfired because he wasn’t being authentic – and he never gained their trust.

Authenticity is being “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character” (merriam-webster.com). When someone is authentic, we trust what they say to be true. When we sense that someone is withholding information, or that they are trying to mislead us in some way, alarms go off in our head and we become suspicious.

If you want an audience to believe what you are saying, be receptive to your ideas, trust your data, and accept your conclusions, then you must be wholly authentic. If you are using borrowed slides, mimicking a mannerism, or imitating a style of dress, then you are not being you and the audience will instinctively know. Because you are putting on a show, you will probably feel uncomfortable, and the audience will be uncomfortable as well. So the next time you are watching a really good speaker, or are sitting through a training course, keep asking yourself “that looks like a great idea, but will it work for me?” Try it on – how does it feel? As you experiment with new presentation styles and ideas, you will know which ones work for you because they will simply feel right – like your favorite pair of jeans. 

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