Speaking up for sharks

Posted on June 13, 2010
Written by: Hannah Medd

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My first time presenting was at the Southern African Marine Science Symposium where I presented my master’s project as a poster. There is nothing like having senior scientists review your work over your shoulder why you bravely smile and defend your research. As my pulse raced and my hands shook, I kicked myself for not taking that 3 credit course on public speaking my freshman year!

Later that day, sitting in the conference room, researchers stood in front of their colleagues and talked about their intricate methods, complicated results, and confounded conclusions. Despite good experimental design and rigorous statistics, some stammered and stuttered and lost their place and I realized despite being an expert on the subject, some of these people didn’t have the skills for public speaking. Knowing that one day I want to be in front of my peers explaining my own work on shark research, I figured I had better get some experience speaking in front of people.

Shark Savers afforded a perfect opportunity with their outreach program that encourages interested people to get out in the public and give talks on shark conservation. I have been giving Shark Savers talks around Florida for over two years now and it has definitely been a learning experience for me! The group Toastmaster’s International has Ten Tips for Public Speaking that ease the anxiety when you are about to give a presentation and I still laugh at number 5 that says “Relax”, easier said than done. I focused on number 10: Gain Experience.

Shark Savers sent the basic talk and I emailed my biography and a summary of the talk to as many addresses I could find online. Responses came in and I booked my first talk at the International Game Fishing Association in Ft. Lauderdale during their Sharkwater exhibition. The talk seemed to be advertised everywhere. The room was HUGE but there was a podium to hide behind. I have learned to love podiums.

People kept filing in. The lights went out, screen came down and the familiar frames of the presentation appeared. I read off the cards, forced myself to look up frequently, sounded like a robot, tripped over a few words and my palms were more than moist. I caught my breath eventually and asked if anyone had questions. I had been so worried about the presentation that I hadn’t prepared for questions. My mind went blank. Are sharks being affected by prescription drugs that are leached into our waste water? Who was doing that study? Where did I read about it? What shark is responsible for the most attacks in Florida? Which ones migrate down the east coast in the winter? I remembered everything on the car ride home. I’m always so much smarter during the car ride home!

I have learned a few things along the way. It is much better to customize the talk, make it your own. It is always easier that way because it follows your individual train of thought. I have learned that 10 year olds know way more than you think they do. I have learned that not all fishermen like to kill sharks. I have learned to listen to the older divers; they’ve seen a lot of changes in the local reefs.

I have met some amazing people who care a lot about our oceans. The Sun Coast Reef Rover, a dive club in Nokomis Florida, has dedicated service days every month spent cleaning beaches and piers. The Ocala Dive Club cleans the windows at Crystal River for manatee viewing for free. The guys at the Fort Myers Spearfishing Club have offered any bony fish catches to be used for research purposes. I’ve been able to share my personal experiences with lots of great people like Sarah, a teenager I met at the Florida Power and Light Dive Club meeting in Juno Beach who is pursuing a career in marine biology.

Two years and many, many miles later, I still get nervous before every talk, get caught on a few words, and take it personally when I see an audience member snoozing in the back row. But I have successfully talked to over 10 dive clubs, 5 chapters of the Sierra Club, local nature centers, a 4H club, 90 fourth graders, and fishermen, among other groups.

I took on this task to gain experience in public speaking but I know that it is so much more. Science has always had a difficult time communicating with the public and this practice has helped me create effective ways of getting the important message across, sharks need our help. It has created an opportunity for me to learn a lot about people’s personal experiences with sharks, their perceptions of the issues, and dispel some of the myths about sharks.

I am always happy when someone thanks me after a talk but I am more thrilled when at the end of every engagement, at least one person tells me they learned something. I know now that the reward is not my list of completed presentations, it is the number of people I may have inspired to make a difference in protecting our sharks!

If you want to get involved in giving local Shark Savers presentations and want some advice, feel free to contact me at Hannah.medd@sharksavers.org. Everyone can learn from my mistakes!