Passion for science? Better than sex?

I’ll never forget the day when Jane, my boss at that time, called me into her corner office for one of her famous “professional development discussions”. Perhaps because I was a young manager Jane felt compelled to offer me extra career advice and guidance whenever she felt I had gotten off-track. Usually it was good advice, but this day was different.

Even though it has been more than 10 years, I still remember her exact words, “Lisa, you are TOO passionate. You’re too involved and intense about work.” She went on, but I didn’t hear much of her words after that.

I distinctly remember thinking to myself…that’s impossible, no one can ever be TOO passionate! It was an “ah-ha’ moment for me; I knew that very minute that I was in the wrong place. In fact, I left that job to start this business. For me embracing passion is fundamental to professional and personal success.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I recognize this same feeling of intensity in the clients that I have worked with over the years. Most
scientists that I have met have a passion for their work, a passion for discovery, a passion for science.

I was reminded of that today when I stumbled upon this interesting article by Jane Koretz, a biophysicist, titled “Work as Meaning: A Passion for Science“. In the article she retells a conversation she had with her colleague, John.

“There’s something else here, John, and that’s the high involved in getting results and seeing, maybe for thefirst time, what is really going on, and then thinking about how it fits in with other things that we know, and then seeing a new way of approaching the whole problem.” And then her friend responds, “Yeah, it’s better than sex and lasts a hell of lot longer.”

Hmmm …well, I do agree that passion is sexy and exciting. I agree that it’s passion that drives us; it’s passion that motivates us; it’s passion that moves us. In fact, when we share our passion people WANT to listen and often we are able to move others–even those that don’t share our passion. This is why, in every conversation you have, in every presentation of your work, it is critical for you to share your intense passion for the work.

Unfortunately, what I have also noticed is that while scientists, in general, are a passionate group, they also seem somewhat uncomfortable and reluctant to share this passion in a public setting. In fact, in the article Koretz describes the same thing.

The stereotype of a scientist is the cold and disinterested seeker after truth (whatever that is!), wearing a lab coat and heavy glasses and tending to be personally untidy and absent-minded, thanks in large part to photos of Albert Einstein. There is, unfortunately, more than a grain of truth to this, as is so often the case with stereotypes. Scientists must at least give the appearance of objectivity in their work, and this is expressed as a detachment and coolness that the conversation above actually belies”.

This describes very much my own experience. When talking one-on-one with a scientist most are happy to share their enthusiasm for the work. Often I can hear the excitement of their recent discovery in their voice. Their words tell the story of their discovery process and they share their emotions and reactions. Even though I am not a scientist myself, I am riveted. Yet, when making a “formal presentation” of this same work these very same scientists transform into cold, dispassionate speakers of facts and figures.

The Koretz’s article was interesting to me because she shares her science as a story. She uses emotional words and very descriptively describes her process. Notice the emotion: “I was appalled by experimental difficulties…” , I was very excited, and also very certain. The idea made sense of all the different observations – often mutually contradictory – in the scientific literature; it was beautiful; it could be tested”.

Also notice how she weaves in the discovery process: “the only conclusion that I could reach was that the current model was definitely wrong”. “It was somewhere at this point that I stopped really thinking about the problem, at least consciously”, “So I cannot explain why or how, while taking a shower one evening, I suddenly KNEW that a-crystallin aggregates were micellar.”

It is the passion, emotion and excitement of the discovery process that all scientists share and can relate to. That is why talking in the form of “scientific story telling” is compelling.

I do understand that by definition science needs to be objective, cold and dispassionate. When performing and documenting the work for formal publication this is, of course, a necessary requirement. However, do not make the mistake of presenting your work in the same way. Please, do NOT “give a paper” when you have been asked to talk about your work. (You have no idea how much I cringe when I hear someone say “I am going to give my paper next week”).

When talking or presenting your work, particularly at a conference, your goal is to SHARE your PASSION. It is to talk about the work in way that is sexy, interesting, and so exciting that your audience feels compelled to read your paper to learn more about YOUR passion! The way to do that is to tell your story. Use emotion words and tell about your discovery process, like Koretz, does in the article.

Like I eventually told my boss Jane, it is impossible to be TOO passionate. Sharing my passion for effective communication has been fundamental to my success as a professional speaker. Just like your ability to share your passion is fundamental to your success as scientific professional and as a scientific speaker.

Do you want to learn more? Sign up for the next small group presentation skills workshop, consider one-on-one coaching, or ask your organization to sponsor a large group seminar. After all, you didn’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book–you needed an expert coach (your Dad) to show you how to do it and then you needed lots of encouragement and practice, right? That’s what I can offer.

Don’t agree with me? As always, I am interested in your feedback. Please leave a comment here or feel free to call our listener line to leave a recorded comment. Oh and be sure to let me know if it’s OK to use your voice on an upcoming podcast or your words and a name on blog posting.

There are 3 comments .

Prashanth narayan —

Today in the world of science no matter what a scientist  does to gets hisher work published they make make sure that it is presented well in front of the scientific community,a well prepared presentation is very crucial,a sophisticated well knitted presentation of the work done, result obtained from doing the work are all very important that is to say no matter what ever the work is big or small ,relevant or irrelevant to the society,their inspiration behind doing the work lets say passion or compulsion one thing they make sure is that they present it all pretty well .If you have ever heard a scientific conference in which a work is being debated on, you find that passions run high from both sides and what everybody forgets while arguing  is the work on which the debate is based on.what i want to ask is what is important work or the the way the work is presented few days later on people will forget the presentation and its well crafted design but what will linger on in their minds is the work,people will want to read about your work not your way of presenting your work .presentation is a mere medium of communicating your work to other people why do you want to  overemphasize it making it all that very important.Do you think that if someone is a bad presenter in a public gathering his work ceases to exist,if the work is relevant and he has done his work with sincerity his work will speak for him what people will remember at the end of the day is the work not the presentation of the work or the presenter of the work.Now regarding communicating your passion along with your work to the audience why would you on the first hand want to do that ,your passion for your work is something personal which alone you should carry it is the emotion which tied you with the work you did and if the work is relevant enough then  the audience will be bound to listen,it is when the work is lame that people tend to add there emotions to it to make it  look more dramatic.   

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Curious Observer —

Best science presentations I have ever seen are by Lene Vestergaard Hau.  She actually makes you want to read or hear more.

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rick r —

If great communication skills are a learned behavior, then I appreciate the scientist that has spent all their energies and passion on their specialty field of work. Unless they are a polymath we can likely expect any passionate scientific presentation to leave a good portion of the audience lacking a full understanding. Thank goodness for public relations departments as well as sales and marketing teams. (And those who teach communication) :)

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