In the first guest blog of the academic year 2022-23, I am so pleased to introduce the wonderful Polly Tisdall to thegratefulacademic.com. Polly is an actor and theatre director with 10 years experience facilitating public speaking training workshops for academics, based in storytelling and theatre approaches. She writes about the fundamental importance in connection in sharing our research stories.
connect / kəˈnɛkt / verb
to join together so as to provide access and communication
In my work as a theatre practitioner and traditional storyteller, connection is key.
As an actor you strive to find genuine connection with your script and to genuinely connect with your scene partner.
As a storyteller you work to connect with a story thousands of years older than yourself, and then connect that story to a contemporary audience.
As a director you work to connect your acting company with one another, with a text or a story or a theme, and with a design concept - and then to bring all of that into connection with an audience.
And in all of this work you hope that, through the connections you make, you bring each individual audience member into deeper connection with each other and with a part of themselves that they rarely get to spend time with in the workaday world.
If you are successful at all this connecting, at all this joining up of disparate and separate elements into a resonant whole, you can move people - perhaps profoundly. You can give them an experience they won’t easily forget. You might even, in rare cases, change minds.
This potential for creating powerful connection through our communication is not limited to the performing arts. Knowing how to craft genuine moments of connection with an audience is a skill set that has relevance to organisations and individuals across myriad disciplines. And it is particularly important, I believe, for those undertaking complex and ground-breaking research.
At the same time, precisely because of the complexity of that research, it can also be particularly challenging. How do you, a researcher with expert knowledge in your area, communicate your field of study to an audience of people who, until you began speaking, might never have known that it existed? How do you do that in an engaging and thought-provoking way? How do you, in a short time frame, condense your work into something they can understand and feel passionate about, without losing your academic rigour?
It’s a tall order. After all, your research may not be quite as appealing to the public consciousness as Cinderella.
But there’s good news. It’s perfectly possible - and you already have all the tools you need to do it.
For the last ten years, alongside my work as a performer and director, I have also been working with academics to help tackle these questions and to connect (there’s that word again) complex research with communication techniques drawn from my work in theatre and storytelling.
We look at our natural communication skills (the ones we use everyday but we discount as irrelevant to formal public speaking), we look at traditional story structures, (why these work and how to make use of them in structuring academic presentations) and we look at that all important moment of how, in the moment, we can bring our structure and our natural skills together on stage to give a powerful presentation.
I’m going to let you into a secret. You may have already spotted it, badly hidden in the title of this post.
Behind all of this work is a simple aim: to help you as researchers create genuine, authentic connection on stage. (You might not call it a stage. I do. As far as I’m concerned, it is.)
If you can create powerful connections between yourself and your material and between your material and your audience, you are winning. You will be memorable and your work will have impact.
So how do you do it?
There’s no one way. But here are some key areas to think about as starting points:
Images. Good storytellers may work with words, but the words are only a tool - a tool to build images. How can you re-imagine your research in pictures? For most people being invited to step into an image they can hold in their head is a lot easier than following a lot of words which are unconnected by an image. So create an image - even just one image per talk - and use it as an anchor to bring your audience back to. Now they’ve got something to connect your ideas to, something they can easily remember. (Another great thing about translating your content into pictures is that, once those pictures are really clear to you, you can describe them in multiple different ways for different audiences - often without even needing a script!)
Breathe. It’s a cliché I know. But it is often surprisingly terrifying to do on stage. We seem to think that breathing is somehow unprofessional and if we pause to take a deep breath we will seem to have lost our thread and will look nervous or incompetent. This is not true. Actually when we breathe on stage, we allow our audience to breathe with us and everyone relaxes. When your audience feels relaxed, they trust you - they think you are confident. So next time you notice yourself gabbling your way through your material and your breath getting caught up high in your chest and your brain going a bit dizzy…. STOP. Stop mid-sentence if you have to. Breathe. Pause. Breathe. Then re-commence. Your audience will thank you for it - and so will your body. If you’re connected to your body, you will be more connected to your material and your audience will find it easier to connect to it too.
Yourself. Dare to put yourself on stage. I’ve noticed that often researchers only want to present their research. They don’t want to present themselves. This is understandable - it is vulnerable to allow ourselves to be seen. It is easier to imagine that we are not being seen and that we just need to recite our work and that will be enough. Unfortunately, this is not true. If you are presenting your work, you are present and it is yours! You matter. And you, as you are, right now, are the perfect person to be presenting it. You are being seen so, instead of running from this reality, try to lean into it. Allow your audience to meet you and to connect with you as a human being, not just a mouthpiece for your research. That is an offer that other human beings in your audience will respect and warm to.
This is something you need to practice and feel in your body, rather than just read about. There are lots of ways to bring yourself on stage, from including some humour to using personal anecdotes. However, it can also be as simple as how you pace yourself and how you make eye contact with your audience. As an example of how this might look in practice try imagining this:
You walk up to the lectern to deliver your presentation. When you arrive you stop. Without saying anything you take a moment to simply look out at the audience. You let yourself see them. Really see them as individual people. You breathe while you do so. At the same time, you are aware that you are letting these people see you. You think, ‘that’s ok. I see you. You see me. That’s ok’. You breathe. Then, and only then, you greet the audience and begin your presentation.
Doing this takes only a few moments at the start of a presentation but it can make a world of difference. It will feel scary at first, but it will ground you and also garner the audience’s attention and respect. They will want to hear what you have to say.
Emotion. Finally, and this is the big one, think about the emotional impact of each part of your presentation. Ask yourself, how do I want to make my audience feel? People remember strong emotional experiences better than facts and figures and building genuine connection with an audience comes from having an emotional motivation for what you are saying. In the sessions I run with academics we use different exercises to explore this - and, again, it’s something better tried and felt than theorised about - but even having it in mind will help you to connect your passion for this material with an audience and increase your chances of making a powerful impact.
Daring to connect yourself with your material, and you and your material with an audience, takes practice. It’s a career long journey.
Try to take joy in your mistakes and in your successes. It’s a practice, an art, a sort of social experiment.
Notice how the more that you dare to offer of yourself, the more people respond and connect with you and your work.
Get together with friends and try out your presentations. Try to think of them as stories and yourself as the storyteller.
I dare you…
Polly's top tips for making genuine connections:
About the Author:
Polly Tisdall is an actor, theatre director, traditional storyteller and facilitator. She specialises in running public speaking training workshops for academics, based in storytelling and theatre approaches and in her own 12 years’ experience of performing and directing live work. She holds an MA in Acting Classical & Contemporary Text from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and a BA in English Literature and Drama from the University of Birmingham.
As a director and assistant director she has previously worked for Oxford Playhouse, Birmingham Rep, Apples & Snakes and mac, Birmingham, amongst others, as well as directing the IdeasTap/ Underbelly award-winning show, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Her storytelling work has taken her all over the UK and abroad, including developing new work in Laos, supported by Arts Council and the British Council, and a year’s Leverhulme Scholarship at the egg theatre, Bath, exploring interdisciplinary work for early years audiences.
During the Covid-19 lockdown she spent two years as a community development worker in inner-city Bristol. Polly is currently in receipt of funding from the RCS Innovation Studio to develop a theatrical retelling of the Greek myth of Icarus in collaboration with East Bristol communities.
You can find out more about Polly’s work and contact her here: www.pollytisdall.com