Forcing ideas through a tiny funnel to translate science

Sally James

About Sally James

Sally James (@jamesian) is a Seattle-based science writer. She has written about big data, protein folding, new designer drugs and a tavern full of Higgs Boson fans. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Portland, Ore.

Public speaking, especially in an unforgiving fast format, gave me new insights into my own writing. It was a nail-biting adrenalin-pumping thrill ride. But I recommend it to everyone who writes.

Many of you have watched videos from the very popular organization – TED. Their motto is “ideas worth spreading.” Imagine you had to perform one of those speeches, standing on the red rug.

Here are a few things I learned from speaking in a cousin of TED, on my own red rug:

  • Spend more time to choose the right images.
  • Practice more than you want to practice. Our coaches recommended 10 times per day.
  • Editing is your friend. My slide set changed every day in the week before the speech.
  • Practice telling the story but avoid memorizing.
  • Try to tell a story with the visuals as related, but not identical, to your story.

For my maiden voyage, I chose a nonprofit known as Ignite Seattle. Their motto is “Englighten us. But make it quick.” There are thriving Ignite communities in Portland, Sydney, Boulder, Baltimore, New York and other cities.

My rewriting process included standing to practice with an ice-cream scoop in my hand (as a stand-in for a microphone). Telling the story aloud – while the slides advanced automatically – forced me to whittle and trim. Hearing the story as I repeated it in slightly different versions helped me see different edits. I never would have typed it in that many different ways before editing. One wonderful bonus of Ignite is that they videotaped my speech, so I can learn even more from my mistakes.

My speech was about using the cartoon-inspired language of upgoer (only the 1,000 most common words) as a sort of calisthenics. Forcing yourself to translate science into upgoer changes the way you see the ideas. Upgoer has critics. Carl Zimmer wrote that he thinks it can be a waste of time. But I think in the right hands, used responsibly, it is safe and helpful.

Forcing your ideas through a tiny funnel sometimes gives you a new way of seeing what is most important. For me, this works whether the funnel is upgoer itself, or giving a short speech about it. As a newcomer, I can’t give you a wise veteran’s guide to giving a good speech. But I can tell you that making yourself get on stage is a thrill ride and an education.

More fun with upgoer

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