An interview with Jo Browning
As a science and communications champion, Jo Browning has worked diligently for more than 25 years coaching scientists and physicians when they speak in public or to the media. She takes her responsibility seriously in helping her clients to speak with impact, authority and clarity about their work. When her dream to give a Ted Talk came true, Jo knew she needed to engage her own coach to help her prepare for the process for delivering her nine-minute speech on stage, without notes at TEDx in Basel.
She turned to Theatreworks for support and has kindly agreed to share her experience.
Presenting at TEDx
Can you tell us a bit about how your TEDx Talk came to be?
JB: Secretly, I’d always wanted to do a TEDx Talk. I am so passionate about supporting scientists and their work and ensuring that it is communicated responsibly, clearly and with the impact it deserves. However, I didn’t feel ready to even consider presenting a talk on this until more recently – after my book, Scientifically Speaking: How to speak about your research with confidence and clarity, was published in 2021.
The book hit a zeitgeist when it came out, due in large part to the misinformation that was brought to the forefront during the pandemic – and it continues to provide value as a resource. Since it was published, I’d been crystallising ideas from the book into what would become the core of the TEDx Talk: how to make science communication accessible and easy.
A friend of mine who had done a Ted Talk herself was adamant that this was the topic I needed to put forward to fulfil my Ted Talk dream. She nominated me, I went through the interview process and within a couple of weeks they invited me to speak. It was a six month process from my invitation to actually delivering my TEDx Talk on stage in Basel.
Had you done much of this type of public speaking previously?
I’m a very experienced presenter and do a lot of speaking. Ironically, I actually support senior people – from CEOs to scientists – when they are speaking ‘on the record’ with the media, at a conference, and even when they are giving Ted Talks themselves.
This was my first theatre presentation since Covid, so I was conscious I was a little out of practice.
How did Theatreworks help?
How did you hear about Theatreworks? What prompted you to reach out to them to help you prepare for your talk?
Having actually coached a number of clients through TEDx Talks myself, I knew how valuable having a coach would be for me. The amazing TEDx team also had coaches to support me, but I also wanted to find additional support from someone I hadn’t worked with before who could give me a fresh perspective and prepare me for speaking to a potentially large audience.
I work with a number of speaker trainers, many of whom had recommended Theatreworks to me as a fantastic resource. Many years ago, I went on one of Theatreworks’ Personal Impact open courses and really loved it. I gained an awful lot from it as I was increasingly giving keynotes. It was good to have that day with two fantastic trainers and of course, coaches need coaches.
What type of support were you looking for from Theatreworks’ one-to-one coaching?
I was keen to find someone who would challenge me on the wording and text of my speech. It was important to me to work with a coach who could hear the rhythm of the text and, like me, would understand the value of the cadence of the words.
Optimising my voice was an important part of this. I hadn’t previously focused on vocal skills in storytelling and I knew I needed to work with someone who could support me on this to help me take my voice to the next level.
I also wanted a level of accountability from a coach. I wanted to schedule sessions in the diary – some in person, some remote – that would complement the coaching that the TEDx team provided me and support me during the preparation process.
Sheila Chawla put me in touch with Theatreworks coach and facilitator Kate Beales. She understood the importance of all of these elements as well as the value of a good performance when it comes to presenting.
Can you talk through what you worked on with Kate?
In the run up to the TEDx Talk, I had one in person session with Kate and four touchpoints.
I had to have the content for my talk finalised two months in advance, so the first part of our work was having Kate’s support to ensure I was happy with the content. We assessed how the words sounded and made sure the storytelling structure worked. We worked on making the content as tight as possible, mostly thinking about the performance itself.
I needed to memorise the full nine-minute talk, which was a challenge; something I’d never done before. Kate encouraged me to get ‘off book’ from the start, which demonstrated to me how much of my talk I already knew. We used a technique actors use to come off book early – I gave the talk and Kate would read the lines alongside me at the same time. This way if I forgot a word, it was there instantly – it was so useful. We also worked a lot on the pace, voice and the all-important breathing.
How did your Theatreworks coaching sessions help you to prepare for your talk?
I tend to get nervous about things that really matter to me – and this talk was very important to me personally, so I knew I’d be nervous.
To help combat my nerves on the day, Kate talked about how the voice can support your system and taught me some techniques I’d not tried before, which really helped. She also actively encouraged me to rehearse in front of as many different people as I could beforehand – clients, friends, family, etc. This way I could get a feel for presenting to a mixed audience as well as get valuable feedback from the people I cared about most.
By the time I got up on the stage on the day, I’d already given my talk to the toughest audience, so that I could deliver my talk without worrying about what they would think. Kate also reminded me that the people I didn’t know in the audience during my talk would be interested in what I had to say and wishing the best for me. I was grateful for this insight.
How did you apply what you learned on the day you delivered it?
Kate had coached me to start off with a huge smile. The minute I did that, everything fell into place. I felt comfortable and really enjoyed giving the talk. Yes, I was nervous, but I was so well prepared that I was able to enjoy it. I hadn’t anticipated the dry mouth I would get due to nerves, but I was able to just take a breath, moisten my mouth and keep going. It was a joyful experience, which was all down to the TEDx process and Kate’s support.
How would you describe your overall experience working with Theatreworks?
It was wholly positive. I have only praise for Kate. She was supportive, flexible, and knowledgeable. I know I’m fussy, so it meant a lot for me to find someone to trust and provide the support I was looking for. I would absolutely recommend Theatreworks to others.
Do you have anything else to add, or tips/insights you would like to share ?
Everybody needs a coach – even coaches themselves! No matter how disciplined or experienced you are, there’s always something you can learn from a coach. Working with one is a great way to prioritise and invest in yourself. Not to mention provide you with a wealth of breathing exercises!
One of the things I’m passionate about is practice and rehearsal. Having someone to keep you accountable really helps to keep you on task, while still being true to your process. I am grateful to Theatreworks and to Sheila and Kate for the part they played in helping to make my TEDx Talk dream a joyful experience – and for being a part of my process in helping scientists become more comfortable with communicating their research.