Talking about the elephant in the room: Mental health and learning how to share your story

There were nine of us sitting there around a big table, nervously shuffling papers and preparing to share our own stories of mental ill-health. Where were we? What were we doing? Why were we drawing on all our courage to tell others vulnerable details of our own experiences and journeys?

Well, we were at a BATYR ‘Being Herd’ workshop.
And we were prepared.

We were there because each one of us wanted to learn how to tell our story – to tell our story in a structured way that connected with others without emotionally swamping them. We had the reassuring presence of Sam & Tom, our workshop facilitators and Amy – our support person.

“Who’s ready to share next? You have 10 minutes and we’re all ready to listen.”

I took a deep breath in and out, then raised my hand. I looked at my notes, and started to speak…

From the Batyr workshop we learnt practical elements of storying telling around mental health. Things like,

  1. Begin with you – what you’re like and what you enjoy.
    Add a little background context – your family, your up-bringing.
  2. What you experienced: how did it begin? What did you notice first? What did others notice (or not notice about you?). Was it an ongoing issue? Describe how it felt – moments in time. Be careful not to generalise, use “I” and “for me”. Everyone experiences everything differently. No one experience is more “real” or more “valid”. (Depending on who you’re talking to – leave out specific methods of any kind of harm and focus instead on the feelings.)
  3. Turning points & support – there may have been one or there may have been many. How did you know you needed to reach out for support? What support did you seek out? What has worked and what hasn’t worked for you? (This is where you can go into detail).
  4. Where are you now in your journey? What is the key message you want to share with others who may be struggling? What do you do today to manage your wellbeing? (For example, being in nature)

What about for those of us who think a friend or someone we know might being going through a tough time?

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Improv. and Science. The odd couple… or a match made in heaven?

In a royally decorated room of the Science Exchange in Adelaide (complete with red carpet, wood panelling and throne-like chairs in the corner), there we awkwardly stood,  30 people in a circle, nervous and fidgeting. We were ready to brave Improv!

This winter, the Royal Institute of Australia (RiAUS) hosted an Improv night specifically geared towards helping scientists, scientists-in-the-making, and other communicators improve their communication skills by diving into a bit of Improvisation.

Dain and Jarred, from OnTheFly Improv (http://www.ontheflyimpro.com) ran the session. They cracked jokes, moved us around and generally reminded us to “keep breathing”. They were wonderful. With my heightened nervous senses, our two-hour session flew by. There were games, mind tricks, advice on stance – all things to could help us to overcome our natural reluctance to blurt out whatever comes first to mind, and instead to trust ourselves. Even in a simple word association game, it was hard not to second guess your answer!

Dain and Jarred also gave us some very practical advice for presenting

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A Guest Lecture on Urban Agriculture

Last week I gave my first ever guest lecture for a UniSA course called “Environment: A Human Perspective”. There were about 50-60 first year students present and my nerves came on strong at the beginning. But I made it through, and listening back I think I managed to get my passion and enthusiasm for urban agriculture across to the students –  I even made them laugh couple of times!… intentionally, of course.

Part #1 of the lecture covered the basics of urban agriculture (UA), some of its differences around the world and how common it is in South Australia.

In Part #2 (which is still being edited) I describe how there is more to UA than simply the productive side (how much food people can grow) – there is also a strong social value side. In the middle there’s some interaction where I ask the students what it takes to grow food from start to finish, and how this in turn influences your research design.

I mention both my honours research on the social reaction of people to aquaponics, in addition to how some of the local councils react to the idea of aquaponics. And finished up with a little on my PhD research on the productive capacity and social value of UA via the Edible Gardens Project.

I know there are a couple a little rough moments in here. But I would still love to get any feedback you may have.

Enjoy!
Georgia the Urban Ag. Scientist

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

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Confronting the 3 Minute Thesis

I finally sat down after the first School of NBE round of the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) and thought, “Well I tried but I don’t think I’m getting through.”

This was because I have never been so overwhelmingly nervous during a presentation ever before in my life. At one point I even remember thinking, “If I just lie down right here on the ground… will everyone just go away and leave me alone?”

So thank goodness I did better than I thought I did.

The 3MT was developed by the University of Queensland and has been running since 2008. It’s a deceptively simple concept:

Can you take your 4 (or 5 or 6 or even 7 years!) of PhD research and explain it to a non-expert audience in under 3 minutes? Oh and you’re only allowed one slide behind you, with no moving parts or sounds. Sounds like a reasonable challenge yes?

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Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 3

Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…

Part 3: Don’t be such a poor storyteller

By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story

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Discovering Voice Training

Imagine being told to make gargoyle faces, to hum using different parts of your body, and to read Doctor Seuss tongue twisters aloud in a big empty room. This was my introduction to voice training.

The class was run by Ms Justene Knight, a Senior Consultant: Organisational Development, Human Resources at the University of South Australia. Standing before us she looked so comfortable and confident in her own body and voice – so it didn’t surprise me to learn that she had previously been an Actor.

We began by trying to pay more attention to our  bodies as we stood there. With two hands on our bellies we practised breathing into our stomachs instead of into our chests (where people normally tend to breathe from). To find tension in our bodies we swung arms, rolled ankles and shook our legs. Justene got us noticing how different subtle postures could shorten our breath. Things like standing on your toes, lifting your shoulders or even curling your toes up can impact how grounded you feel and how your breath comes out.

And try this for an exercise! To help shift your voice from the back of your throat or up in your head – Pinch your nose closed and say,

“Hello, my name is _______ and I do _____________ for work.” 

I bet you sounded pretty funny huh? Now try to do it and sound completely normal! No nasal sounding words at all ( I can get some words but not others).

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Fresh Science at the Pub

Last Wednesday night, I attended the FreshScience talks at the Lion Hotel in North Adelaide. I was there to hear from all the South Australian based young researchers who had just been through two days of media and public communications training, and were now going to give a casual but short talk on their research in a pub setting.

The night was hosted by Sarah Brooker – Managing Director of ‘Science in Public’ , “We believe that the media have an appetite for science”. The presenting researchers were kept on their toes and didn’t even know which order they were to speak in. To make the time limit extra obvious, each speaker with given a birthday sparkler. They were to introduce themselves, have the sparkler lit, and then had until the fire ran out to tell the audience all about their work.

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Stretching Communication Boundaries

http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7481-121a

This article titled “Communication: Spontaneous Scientists” is from the Naturejobs blog, and it welcomes improvisation to science communication. The article discusses techniques to develop the capacity to adapt during a presentation or a conversation, in addition to how we can even be a little bit theatrical or personable when attempting to communicate. I found this whole idea just so exciting!

During my undergraduate science degree, presentations were always a matter of: making your slides look professional, ensuring you defend your research strongly enough and remaining composed and serious in front of your audience. For many of my classmates at the time, standing up and speaking even just in front of the class was a terrifying, or at the very least, uncomfortable experience.

Now in my PhD research I am still being guided towards keeping my presentations serious, with lots of tables and references. Once I was even told to put more words on my slides, as I was speaking more than what was up on the screen.

I do understand that to be taken seriously by other scientists we need to keep within some traditional boundaries, especially for those of us relatively new to the world of research and publishing scientific journal articles. But I still find it frustrating that your research could be exemplary or ground-breaking, but present that research with too colourful slides or too enthusiastic a manner and you would not be taken seriously.

The article above does refer to presenting research to non-scientific audiences. I guess I am just looking forward to a time when I can push some of these presentation boundaries myself, particularly in an academic setting.

WOMADelaide 2016 Composting 101 Workshop

This March, I presented a workshop on composting at WOMADelaide 2016. It was a very big day that began early with dropping off all my props and gear, and finished with a rush of adrenaline in the late afternoon as I realised that it was all done. Nothing went wrong – in fact everything had gone right, and it was so much fun!

My workshop host was Deb Tribe, a fantastic presenter from 891 ABC radio. We met face to face only an hour before the workshop was due to start but she put me at ease straight away. Now, I’m used to presenting in front of a PowerPoint presentation. Usually without props, not much movement and no-one else doing any speaking.

This was very different!

The Speakers Corner stage dedicated to this year’s Planet Talks and workshops had so much infrastructure: couches and comfy chairs, trestle tables, side tables and plants all round the edges. When running through the workshop plan with Deb, she suggested we start sitting down and talking, then move over to the trestle table covered in all the composting examples, and finally move back to the couch to finish. And it wasn’t just me talking. This workshop was a conversation between Deb and I. A back and forth, with her asking questions to clarify things I was doing. To top it off we even had 3 volunteers up on stage to help build an example compost heap right then and there. The young boys that jumped up to volunteer all thought the smelly compost ingredients (like manure) were hilarious!

And it went brilliantly. I had a shock the first time I opened my mouth to talk and looking away from Deb realised that the place was full. It felt wonderful being able to read the audience, to watch their faces, bounce off their reactions and really have fun with it. We covered everything we meant to within the hour and even had time for questions – some of them really curious ones. Later on I was told that the workshop had been filmed and projected up onto a big screen up the hill where even more people had been camped out watching us.

I had the absolute best time and can’t wait for my next experience.