Did you schedule your Viva Voce? Got your date? Great! Now let’s stop worrying and start talking. Yep. In the first post on Viva Voce I proffered the notion that you “write” your thesis for the “experts” but “tell” the story of your journey to “all.” Writing and speaking are two distinct media—one written, one oral. So let’s start talking – literally. Take out your mobile phone and select a recording app. Now go ahead, speak up. I know you feel self-conscious and you likely don’t appreciate the sound of your own voice. That’s unfortunate, but neither an excuse nor an obstacle to skillful preparation of your Viva and that begins with “talking up” the story of your thesis and getting it recorded. You are converting here from scientist to storyteller, researcher to narrator. And you know how powerful a narrator can be. Think Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption and March of the Penguins.
Start Talking and Taping. You may feel some anxiety about this. That’s normal. It was Sally Ride who said, “When you’re getting ready to launch into space, you’re sitting on a big explosion waiting to happen.” You are about to be launched into your liberation from the tedium and intensity of your highly sophisticated research and writing and you can sense it. You have license now to exhale and simply tell the story. Where to begin? Start with an Introduction, an orientation of about six sentences to acquaint the listener with this project. And be bold in this Introduction. State clearly who you are and the title of your work. Share your motivations for your research. Credit the people whose work inspired you in the first place. Be gracious. Speak about those who guided you along the way. Thank them for their roles and contributions to your progress and ideas. Begin the story about the day you realized what you would explore for your thesis. Remember that exciting moment? Describe it with enthusiasm. Outline the plot. Name the characters involved in addition to you. Provide just enough detail to make it clear why this line of inquiry had your name on it.
Next, share your Methodology. Make a clear affirmation describing your approach. Elaborate a bit, but use your judgment about just how much more you need to tell people given that there will be a Q&A session during which you can provide more information and details if listeners want them.
Then it’s on to the fun stuff – your Results. State your findings in language that non-experts can absorb. Sounding like Sheldon Cooper won’t help and sounding like the guy or gal next door goes a very long way when the community already knows you’re smart. And don’t skimp on the humor. Most projects have bumps and bad days and setbacks that are comical in retrospect. Don’t be shy about sharing these vignettes as they are humanizing and make your message more memorable. Here, too, elaborate on your findings – again, using your judgment as to how much more to share as the Q&A provides time for elaboration.
Finally, bring your listeners to the end of your “story.” Resolve the plot. Summarize. Put your hard work into perspective and among the works that define your field. Take your earned place in your discipline. Consider that your thesis is like the first book in your trilogy.
Transcribe and Translate. Why record yourself? Your recording is to your words like a glass jar is to fireflies. You can capture them and examine them at your own pace. If you examine something recorded and can do better, let it go. When on the other hand something comes out of your mouth and sounds good, you got it and can TRANSCRIBE it. Yep, type it up. Type up your spoken English, the language that all in attendance at your Viva can appreciate.
Then review your transcript. Comb it for each and every scientific, field-specific piece of jargon or phrase from your discipline’s lexicon and highlight them all in yellow marker. Then translate the highlighted into spoken English for those at your Viva who are not experts in your field. Be a “simultaneous translator” similar to when we bring a friend or colleague to a family event. Somebody uses an expression in the family tongue which is unfamiliar to a newcomer or outsider. And so we politely translate, sometimes with a stage-whisper, frequently with a wink, always with a smile. We do it in a way that they feel welcomed to the fold, not excluded as outsiders.
Rerecord and Rehearse. Record your revised Viva and again transcribe this now polished version. Then rehearse – aloud. If you are presenting in a standing position, practice your Viva out loud from a standing position. If you will be seated, practice aloud from a sitting position. You breathe differently depending on your body’s position so to get accustomed to the way you feel as you breathe and share your story as well as the sound of your own voice as you narrate.
How many rehearsals? About a dozen, including two dress-rehearsals in the attire you will wear for your Viva. You will feel more confident when groomed, dressed and accessorized like a professional. What to do with your recording? Listen to it as often as you can between rehearsals. Work your wiring: just as you learn songs by hearing them over and over and singing along, you can internalize your presentation by hearing it as well as telling it repeatedly. You’ll know your Viva presentation and can deliver it as well as the guests at your celebration will serenade you with “For s/he’s a jolly good fellow … that, nobody can deny!” They’ve heard and sang it often enough to deliver it right on cue when you enter the room after a successful Viva.
This post is second in a series of three that began with “Viva Voce! Now Doesn’t that Sound Nicer than ‘Defending Your Thesis?’” Stayed tuned for the third and final piece, “Viva Voce! Conducting Your Q&A with Confidence.” The series is an adaptation of a two-part workshop Lisa Bernard conducted in April 2013 for seniors in the Program of Neuroscience & Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College at Columbia University.