Viva Voce! Three Steps to Move You from Scientist to Storyteller and from Researcher to Narrator as You Defend Your Thesis


Did you schedule your Viva?  Great!  Now let’s stop worrying and start talking it up.  Yep.  In the first post on Viva Voce I proffered the notion that you “write” your thesis for the “experts” but you “tell the story” of your thesis to “all in attendance” at your Viva.  You may feel some anxiety about this.  That’s normal.  It was astronaut 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 liberation from the intensity of your sophisticated research and writing and you can sense it.  You are also about to face an audience of your mentors, examiners, peers and possibly members of the press and others who can apply your findings to their work.  Yikes!  Exhale and realize that the heavy-lifting is behind you.  Now it’s time to simply tell the story.  You are converting here from scientist to storyteller, from researcher to narrator.  You got this!  You know this story!  And you appreciate how powerful a narrator can be.  (Think Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption and March of the Penguins.)  And there are just three steps to a failsafe Viva.


1) Start Talking and Recording.   Writing and speaking are two distinct media, so let’s start transitioning from writer to narrator by taking out your mobile phone and selecting a recording app.  Why record yourself?   Your recording is to your words like a glass jar is to fireflies.  You can capture them and examine them.   If you examine your words and sense you can do better, delete them and have another go at it.  On the other hand, when something comes out of your mouth and sounds good, you got it.   Now go ahead, speak up!  You may feel self-conscious and you likely don’t appreciate the sound of your own voice – but neither is an excuse or an obstacle to skillful preparation of your Viva. 

Where to begin?  Start with an Introduction of about six sentences to acquaint the listener with your project.  Be bold in this Introduction.  State clearly who you are in the field and the title of your work.  Share your motivations for your research.  Be gracious.  Credit the people whose work inspired you in the first place.  Speak about those who guided you along the way.  Thank them for their roles and contributions to your progress and ideas.  Then begin the story with the day you realized what you would explore for your thesis.  Remember that exciting moment?  Describe it with enthusiasm.

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’s a Q&A session during which you can provide more information and details if listeners request them.

Then it’s on to the fun stuff – your Results.  State your findings clearly in language that non-experts can understand.  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 memorable.

Finally, bring your listeners to the end of your story.  Resolve the plot.  Summarize.  Put your hard work into perspective and place your thesis among the works that define your field.

2) Transcribe and Translate.  Yep, type up your recording in full.  Then review your transcript.  Comb it for each and every scientific, field-specific piece of jargon from your discipline’s lexicon and highlight them all in yellow.


Then translate the highlighted words and phrases into laymen’s terms for those at your Viva who are not experts in your field.   Be a “simultaneous translator” so all those in attendance – experts and non-experts – can keep pace with your presentation.

3) Record and Rehearse.  Record your revised Viva and transcribe this polished version.  Then rehearse – aloud.  If you are presenting in a standing position, practice your Viva aloud from a standing position.  If you will be seated, practice aloud from a sitting position.  You breathe according to your body’s position so get accustomed to the way you feel as you stand or sit when narrating the story of your thesis.


How many rehearsals?  About a dozen, including at least one dress-rehearsal 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 brain’s wiring:  just as you learn songs by hearing them repeatedly and singing along, you can internalize your presentation by hearing it often and telling it repeatedly.  You’ll know your Viva presentation “by heart” 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 as you enter the party following your 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 for senior femme scientifiques in the Program of Neuroscience & Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College at Columbia University. 


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 manages 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 and like her firm at