How To Talk To a Roomful of Artists Who Are Better Than You

Here are my public speaking tips when speaking to a roomful of artists who are better than you. Okay, first let's define "better".

  • I have an Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts, and tend to paint dead ocean critters with ridiculous wings on them.
  • I have spoken to artist groups such as Association of Medical Illustrators and Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, many of whom have graduated from programs like the Biomedical Communications Graduate program at the University of Toronto and know what the thing at the back of your throat is called and how to draw it in cross section as well as animate it wiggling when you sing karaoke. Scientific illustrators create artwork that can save lives, inspire conservation efforts, and visualize trips to space. This post is based on a presentation I gave in front of life-saving medical illustrators. So that's what I mean by "better".

My tips:

One of my first slides, showing a flying trilobite painting. I let descriptive blurbs on the slides tell the jokes for me. © Glendon Mellow.

1. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Poke a bit of fun at your own work. Although I think wielding the power of evocative visual metaphors is one of the highest intellectual pursuits of humankind, I have to admit painting wings on trilobites is pretty weird. Hopefully this disarms any audience naysayers who wonder what you are doing there and makes discussing your work easier for others. If you don't treat your own paintings as precious, highly-evolved concepts above the likes of normal mortals, you are easier for people to relate to. For some reason.

I almost didn't include the hashtag info here. It felt like I was putting too much text on the slide.

2. Don't read from the slides. Slides should be visuals to illustrate your points, not where you keep your points. <--SERIOUSLY, THAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP ON HERE. This talk was only 20 minutes, so there was a lot of ground to cover. I included this slide (above) near the end as one I could quickly whip through if my time was almost done, or I could linger on if my talk still had extra time due to drinking 5 coffees that morning and talking like a squirrel. 

Talkin' Twitter at the Association of Medical Illustrators. Thanks to Julie Saunders for the photo!

3. Share useful tools. There's a tendency in artists and illustrators to want to always maintain some professional mystique, to keep the aura of Why You Are So Great a bit of a mystery so that no one replicates your success. We all need to fight that and share techniques with each other. During this presentation, I shared why I think Twitter is a great tool for nuanced, complicated arguments by using what's know as the "Twitter essay" (increasingly misidentified as a "tweet storm" these days, whatevs).

Oh, and in case you're wondering about how to write a Twitter essay without looking like a noob:

The Twitter Essay: keep replying to each of your own sequential tweets (delete your @name), and use 1/m, 2/n until you are finished. Then, when someones sees 32/n retweeted into their feed, they can click on it and see the whole thread.

4. Don't be creepy. You want to share enough about yourself to show how everyone's professional journey is similar, but each has unique twists and turns in the story. But if you throw random personal stories out there without a point, it can come off creepy. That's why I never tell anyone my "broken zipper at a friend's wedding" story. It goes nowhere. Always bring it back around to the work and your drive for why you do what you do.

Talking about our Symbiartic blog means talking about the #SciArt community.

5. Open doors. When I talk about Symbiartic, I talk about the things that I feel are important to the #sciart community. Copyright and attribution issues. Respect for illustrators as effective science communicators alongside journalists. The power of banding together on issues that matter. Sharing art techniques and ideas. When I speak to professional scientific illustrators, I hope to convince them to get out of their studio-and-peers bubble a bit and share more of their work and expertise with the wider world of science communication. Insight should be shared.

Giving any sort of talk to artists and illustrators should be a call to action, a call to communicate. It's not just self-promotion, it's about participating in a wider community.

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A version of this post originally appeared on Symbiartic, the Scientific American art+science blog in July, 2014. It has been lightly edited.