When my children were toddlers and getting rowdy I would certainly set limits and reprimand bad behavior – but I did it in Italian. I found that especially in public it sounded so much more pleasant and was in fact much more effective to warn, “Non toccare!” instead of “Don’t touch that!” And “Sta’zitto” said with emphasis sounded much more polite than, “Be quiet!” Somehow my kids understood my admonitions more clearly and reacted faster and more favorably to them when stated in Italian. And it didn’t put them on the defensive.
Turns out, the same thing is so when it comes to degree candidates who find it the time of year to schedule “the oral defense of their theses.” Yikes! Just the sound of it makes my stomach hurt and my heart race and I “defended” my thesis thirty five years ago. Sounds like you’re going to the dentist and need to grab your sword and put on your armor. And it begs the questions, “Defend it from what?” “Defend it against whom?”
Doesn’t it sound kinder and gentler to say, “viva voce?” In Italian this means “in live voice” and in Latin something akin to “with living voice” or even “by word of mouth.” In fact, viva voce is what most of the world outside the United States calls the oral defense of one’s thesis. Europeans call it viva for short and it connotes a live and lively exchange in good spirit between the researcher and the attendees. And this makes sense because it better describes both the process of preparing for, and objectives of, this very special face-to-face meeting between researcher, faculty and community.
Let me be clear that I mean in no way to diminish the significance or implications of this catalytic academic event. Instead, I offer this fresh perspective to ease the unnecessary stress that seems to accompany the scheduling of and preparation for this occasion. By thinking “viva” instead of “defense” you can begin to orient yourself to your role as teller of the story of your thesis. You can begin to prepare excitedly your viva to be the best it can be for what it is. And simply put, your viva is the sharing of your story as 1) a researcher 2) motivated to explore an unchartered area 3) using a particular approach 4) that produced certain findings. Yes, it’s a story you tell in four parts.
“Simply” is a useful notion for preparation of your viva insofar as people outside your area of expertise attend and may make use of your findings. We present our theses findings to a wide audience so those outside our disciplinary expertise can also benefit. We will see that it is helpful to regard the “other” audience at your at your viva – the lay audience – even before your supervisors and the experts in your field. Why? Because for the experts there is the written document, replete with details and composed in the lexicon of the field or discipline.
So let us not make more – or less – of your upcoming viva voce. Schedule your viva. Finish writing-up your thesis. Then we can focus on translating the written work into spoken English that all in attendance can understand and appreciate. Then we can focus on telling your unique story clearly and comprehensively so adults in and outside your area of expertise can make use of your findings as you earn your place among experts.
Make sense? Good. Check-in next month. I’ll begin sharing my step-by-step guide to preparing a viva from Introduction to Q&A. Write me if you have any specific questions that can’t wait.
Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication. She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators. Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today fuses her first and second careers at Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide. You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and like her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.