How researchers get heard
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The Nature, Not the Plans

Take another look at the provocative line I quoted Tuesday from programmer Kent Beck’s essay “The First Thing a Technical Speaker Needs”:

As a presenter, it’s more important to be trustworthy than expert.

Most experts — even those who know better — bristle at this formulation. Isn’t being an expert already the highest form of trustworthiness?

Well, look around. How’s that attitude working for you?

Beck isn’t against expertise. He’s against a particular form of expertise that has all the answers — that pretends to:

Some trustworthy answers are, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t know, does anyone else here know?” or, “Here’s how I would find out.” My desire to have others see me differently than I see myself gets in the way. With decades of practice, I can usually keep the inner struggle short enough that all the audience sees is a reasonable response, but the struggle still happens every time.

If you can become comfortable with that struggle, you can become an effective public expert.

Beck wrote “The First Thing a Technical Speaker Needs” as a response to a podcast that offered “professional technical speaker tips” such as “making repeated eye contact with five or six people in the audience so everyone in the audience has a feeling of connection.” Such tips, argues Beck, can help you, but

they only work if they build on a foundation of authenticity. Carefully manipulating patterns of eye contact to convince people you care about them when you don’t care is a complicated and futile distraction.

I agree — but when many researchers see the word “authenticity” anywhere near “presentation,” they think: That’s right! I’m a researcher, dammit! I don’t want to be anyone else on stage. So I’m going to give my usual presentation to this group of non-specialists and let the chips fall where they may. (And I’m not going to spend more than 30 minutes throwing it together, either!)

This is another way “expert” becomes “untrustworthy.”

Years ago I was invited to watch some conservation scientists on retreat give practice talks intended for the public and then give them advice on how to improve them. One scientist talked passionately and at length about plans to conserve threatened lake ecosystems in a Midwestern state — how the plans were being ignored by the powers that were and how we needed to ensure the plans had a mechanism to be considered and heard.

After the scientist finished, I said: “The problem with this talk is that you’re telling us the plans are in danger, not the nature that the plans are designed to save. The nature is what people care about — not the plans. Figure out how to shift the focus to what your audience will connect with. No one else is going to care about the plans nearly as much as you.”

The problem with focusing on authenticity when you’re a researcher taking on a public expert role is that your “authenticity” as a researcher — your jargon, your exactitude, your caveats, your slides overflowing with bullet points and scatterplots — almost always gets in the way of inhabiting the role.

Again: Expertness is not by itself trustworthy, especially the 200-proof authentic kind. “Public expert” is a role based on trust, linked to but distinct from the expert proper. Becoming and improving as a public expert requires purpose and craft. It flows from a sense of urgent mission to contribute and make a difference, not from the identity of being an expert itself.