Speaking of Science

1. Erika Ebbel (left) waits for her turn to speak to an audience of biotech industry representatives, educators and politicians at the Massachusetts State House. U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (second from right) was another featured speaker.
2. Erika Ebbel shares “a few words” with the Massachusetts Senate.
3 & 4. WhizKids participants use forensic science skills to solve “crimes” in the CSI Comes to Boston event held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last November.

One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand... pause...begin.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Toastmasters has taught me regarding scientific presentations is the importance of pacing myself. If I speak too quickly, I lose my audience in a flurry of words. If I speak too slowly, I lull my audience to sleep. And so, as a public speaker in training, I’ve learned to find a balance, a comfortable harmony somewhere in between.

When I was a child, I seemed to have no shortage of things to say (my parents and friends can attest to this). My problem was in delivery and control. Sometimes, ideas from my vocal chords would spring up in long, repetitive sentences. On other occasions, the words would flow so quickly that it was difficult for those listening to keep up. In both situations, anyone trying to understand me found it challenging to grasp my ideas. They were forced to pay more attention to my delivery than the content.

At the recommendation of a mentor, I joined Tuesday Toastmasters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I hoped to learn how to control my words and how to deliver them more effectively, thereby providing listeners with a more intriguing and cohesive presentation. Through weekly practice, constructive criticism and a developed sense of self control, I became more confident, more extemporaneous – and most importantly – more aware of myself, my thoughts and my words.

As a graduate student in the field of science, I must often give technical presentations. Toastmasters has taught me to count to three before speaking and before answering questions. Those three seconds give the audience an opportunity to settle down and focus, and they give me an opportunity to formulate an intelligent response. After a brief pause, I answer each question with greater confidence and with complete attention from the audience.

It took several months to grow comfortable with the practice of pausing before speaking, taking a deep breath and pacing myself. I learned, however, that the silence was imperceptible. It was more important for me to feel that I was speaking at a slower pace than what felt normal. This took a great deal of control. I learned to detach my thoughts from my words so that I could plan and hear what I wanted to say before delivering the content aloud. Speaking slowly also helped, because it gave me more time to translate my thoughts into words. One way of thinking about this concept is to consider a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. In a fugue, we first hear a given musical theme. Eventually, another theme enters and answers the first. The two play off of each other in harmony. If the first theme metaphorically represents thoughts, and the second represents voice, one can see how the first theme introduces the second, and eventually the two proceed together.

To this day, the skills I learned from participating in Toastmasters have been invaluable. Toastmasters role-playing was excellent practice for presenting to larger audiences.

Over the last few years, I have been able to apply the skills learned at Toastmasters in a number of different ways. At age 21, while a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I decided to start my own non-profit foundation called WhizKids (www.whizkidsfoundation.org). The goal of WhizKids is to spark middle and high- school students’ interest in math and the sciences. As I started promoting WhizKids and interacting with politicians, funders, corporations, teachers, students and the media, I realized the importance of brevity, clarity and expressiveness. The more I practiced, the more I realized how important my Toastmasters experience had been.

The Toastmasters skills I learned also helped me when I became Miss Massachusetts 2004 in the Miss America Scholarship Program. The scholarship prizes I won through participation in the Miss Massachusetts program helped me to pay for one year of school at MIT, and to gain increased publicity for WhizKids. I was asked to speak at fundraisers, conferences, and as keynote speaker before a variety of audiences on dozens of occasions.

In 2006, I was fortunate to receive $50,000 in funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to expand WhizKids’ programs. During my quest to obtain funding, there was an instance when I was invited to the Massachusetts State House to be presented to the state Senate. One of my friends, a senator from Massachusetts, instructed me to walk up to the podium in the Senate chambers, be introduced, and then step away from the podium. When it was my turn, I walked up to the podium, shook hands with the Senate president, and stood listening to my introduction. At the conclusion of the introduction, the senator added the statement, “...and she has a few words to say.” This was not part of the original plan. Immediately, my heart began to beat faster and my brain was flooded with thoughts. I approached the microphone and reminded myself to follow the lessons I had learned in Toastmasters: “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three-one-thousand...pause... begin.” During those moments I was able to calm down, think about what message I wanted to convey to this audience and set a pace for my words.

For several minutes, I had the attention of the entire Senate chamber. At the conclusion of my presentation, I told the senator, “You didn’t tell me I was going to speak.” He responded, smiling, “I knew you could do it. And it was fantastic practice for you.” He was right. The skills I had sharpened at Toastmasters prepared me to stand confidently, despite any nervousness, at the podium in the Senate chamber, addressing the senators.

Honing my speaking skills has matured my presentations, which in turn has helped me gain the notice of additional funding sources, expand WhizKids programs and recruit motivated and energized staff. Currently, WhizKids is building collaborations with such leading organizations as The Girl Scouts of America, the Boston Museum of Science, the McAuliffe Challenger Center, the New England Chinese Information and Networking Association, F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology), and BioTeach.

Today, I make sure that presentation skills are taught to kids at an earlier age. WhizKids reaches out to schools nationwide to help students compete in science fairs, develop science clubs and discover just how “cool” science and technology can be in their daily lives. WhizKids works within a diverse set of communities, including schools that lack critical science resources and with organizations looking to encourage female participation in mathematics and the sciences.

It is my goal for students in the program to walk away appreciating the importance of hard work, patience and perseverance.

Erika Ebbel is a 2004 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a major in chemistry and a minor in music. She is currently attending Boston University Medical School as a Ph.D. candidate. She is the founder, CEO, and Executive Director of the WhizKids Foundation and was Miss Massachusetts 2004 in the Miss America Program.

A Formula for Future Scientists: Kids Plus WhizKids

For those in technical professions, having good public speaking skills is a major asset. WhizKids teaches budding scientists and engineers how to improve their speaking skills and confidence. At WhizKids, we work to:

Boost their self-confidence. Often, how you say something is more important than what you say. Young speakers will often look at the floor when speaking, or speak very quietly because they are nervous. So at WhizKids, we begin by asking teenagers to present short, simple topics. Most are comfortable talking about their personal experiences or things they like. Therefore, to build self confidence, we first ask the students to introduce themselves, to tell us about their favorite books, classes, music, or food. Students are usually willing to share this information and it helps them build confidence while speaking in front of their classmates.

Use laughs to teach language skills. We teach students to speak slowly, enunciate their words and project their voices. We also discourage the use of words such as like, you know, and the often prolific ums and ahs. The trick is to not discourage the novice speaker, but to demonstrate how a speech can be ruined with too many filler words. To demonstrate this, the more experienced speaker can demonstrate a “mock” speech for the novice, interjecting ums and ahs at random into the talk. The novices usually laugh their way into learning how distracting that can be.

Provide new opportunities. Whether working with students or staff, it’s important to show that you have faith in their abilities. On numerous occasions, I have asked students in the program to speak as panelists at conferences or in media interviews. I think providing teens with this type of opportunity helps build their self confidence.

Avoid assumptions. Scientists are accustomed to giving presentations for other scientists. However, when giving a presentation, it is often easy to forget that not everyone knows what you know. I encourage speakers to provide ample background information and a concise, detailed introduction so that the audience can follow the presentation from the beginning. If the audience is lost or does not understand the material from the start, they will be more likely to tune out in exasperation and boredom for the rest of the presentation. Instead, WhizKids learn that an audience should leave their presentation with a clear understanding of what was presented.

Allow students to practice. When teaching students how to speak in public, the most effective method is to begin working with them as early as possible. We work with young students in WhizKids programs. If young people are encouraged and taught how to communicate clearly from an early age, they grow into adults who can face public speaking without fear.

The WhizKids Foundation introduces children to science and at the same time helps them develop communication skills. Fifth grade student Janice DeStefano said, “I learned [a mixture of] vinegar and other substances will bubble while other things will turn into a solid. I want to be a scientist, so this was very interesting for me. I think this program will help to improve my grades.” For more information, visit www.whizkidsfoundation.org