By Sue Baic MSc Registered Dietitian
Do you ever feel frustrated by some of the confusing mixed messages and misinformation on diet and health that reach the public? If so, you aren’t alone – but how can nutrition professionals help counter this? Our input on social media and in the mainstream press and broadcasting media can be a valuable way to reach large audiences, but have you ever considered public speaking? In this blog I’ll describe how and why I started getting more involved in this field, highlight a case study about how I delivered some talks on cruise ships and offer a few suggestions for anyone interested in taking up public speaking themselves.
Why public speaking?
Before becoming a public speaker, I’d worked for many years as a clinical dietitian in the NHS and as a lecturer and researcher in higher education. When I decided to move into the freelance world, I brainstormed which transferable skills might be useful in other settings. I’d always enjoyed presenting to large groups of patients and students and some of the fear and anxiety inherent in the process had dissipated from doing it so frequently!
I’d also worked as a media spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and the Science Media Centre and been co-author on several public facing nutrition books, including the UK version of Nutrition for Dummies. These roles had given me some confidence in translating nutrition science into easily accessible, practical, and entertaining information for the public.
I looked around for opportunities to start building my CV and discovered there were plenty available. Many were face to face but there was also some demand for talks delivered online. Some bookings provided a modest speaker fee and others offered chance to attend an event for free with travel expenses.
I found it useful to think of my role as a “infotainment” and to tailor my speaking style to include more anecdotes and humour alongside the science. Many excellent public speakers present without any visual aids, but slides helped me convey text, images or video clips and often doubled up as useful handouts.
I discovered there were a surprising variety of areas that appealed to public audiences but topical subjects (such as diet and immunity or sustainable eating) or interesting ways to reframe healthy eating messages (such as women’s health or mindful eating) worked best (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Areas of diet, nutrition, and health which can work well in public speaking
Some of the most interesting and challenging public speaking events I’ve done have been in the tourism and travel sector so I’ve included an example as a case study.
Case study: Nutrition speaking on cruise ships
Cruising is popular – each year nearly 30 million passengers worldwide take a sea-based vacation in one of the 300 ships run by 50 cruise lines. Guest entertainment on board ranges from dance shows and concerts to comedy and magic. Alongside this some cruise lines offer programmes of “enrichment talks” covering anything from history or wildlife to true crime and astronomy.
Back in 2015 I sent a CV with details of my public speaking experience to some of the major cruise lines asking if they would consider nutrition as suitable for guest enrichment. I didn’t receive many replies and found the proposal surprisingly hard to sell up against some of the other subjects speakers were offering. There were relatively few available slots and a huge number of speakers, many of whom who do this in their retirement.
Finally, after 18 months’ of perseverance and several auditions, I managed to secure a trial booking. I now do a few speaking engagements on board ship each year and once I had some experience as a cruise enrichment speaker under my belt, I was able to employ an agent to help me find additional opportunities. To date I’ve been to Australia, S.E. Asia, and the USA but most openings have been for Scandinavian, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. As with any service industry the “on board etiquette” took a bit of getting used to but I now feel like a key member of entertainment team and enjoy adding value as well as bringing enjoyment to the guests.
My talks often relate to the itinerary such as the “The Nordic Diet”, “Caribbean Superfoods” or “Getting your 5 -a- day the Mediterranean Way”. However, nutrition and positive ageing is a popular topic since around half the passengers are aged over 50 years (with 15% over 70 years). Initially I steered away from talking about weight management. However, it soon became apparent that positive, practical tips from nutrition and psychology for avoiding weight gain at sea appealed to people (including many the ship’s crew who often watch the talks on their cabin TV!). Adapting content to meet the needs of multiple nationalities is often necessary- 50% of cruise passengers come from North America, 25% from Europe and 15% from Asia.
Audience sizes range anywhere from 50 to 300 passengers depending on ship size and there’s always competition with other forms of entertainment or the sea views, swimming pools and delicious food!
Comprehensive evaluation is used to decide whether a speaker is invited back, and regular feedback is sought from passengers on interest value as well as the speaker’s presentation skills and social interactions around the ship. Often the weather is fine but speaking on stage can be tricky in a storm with sea sickness being an occasional occupational hazard!
What are some of the advantages and challenges with public speaking on nutrition?
Public speaking can help qualified and experienced nutrition professionals to reach large audiences in a way that is both enjoyable and informative. It can also offer an interesting and effective way to meet some of the needs for Continued Professional Development (CPD).
Speaking in front of large groups of people can be nerve wracking and ranks highly in many people’s list of greatest fears. It’s helpful to remember that audiences are usually on the presenter’s side, willing them on to do a good job and keen to hear what they have to say. Regular speaking builds confidence and gets easier over time. There are plenty of helpful strategies that can be learnt to help overcome nerves. It’s always a good idea to practice talks by delivering them to friends or family. It’s even possible to record yourself using a platform such as Zoom and watch it back with a critical eye.
Professional talks take a lot of time and effort to plan, write, rehearse, and keep up to date. Most speakers are expected to have several different topics in their repertoire but once talks are prepared, they can often be used several times.
The feeling of “making a difference” can be rewarding especially when audience members say you’ve cleared up confusion, given them inspiration or motivated them to make a dietary change. I have fond memories of a head chef on a cruise who told me that the kitchen had used up their weekly store of red cabbage and berries for the buffet in just one day following a talk to passengers on the benefits of purple polyphenols!
It’s not unusual to face difficult questions. Audiences are often very well informed and indeed may themselves be healthcare professionals or scientists. It’s always helps to admit when you don’t know the answer but suggest where a solution might be found. Some people ask clinical or personal questions which fall outside a speaker’s professional remit, so it can be necessary to advise how to access a nutrition professional for more specific individual advice.
Often audience members request additional information, so speakers may need to signpost towards good quality resources. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) Food Fact sheets are one example of evidence based and professionally written free leaflets on a broad range of topics (see Useful Resources).
Public speaking can be invaluable for networking and may help generate new work strands for nutrition professionals. For example, there is a growing demand for support with workplace health (see BDA Work Ready in Useful Resources). An inspiring talk delivered to local businesses might prompt them to consider the value of a staff health promotion programme offering nutrition education or input into the catering provision.
Some tips if you think public speaking might be for you..
Training and support in speaking are offered by a wide range of membership organisations, including some on social media platforms. Joining one can help with anything from improving presentation skills and managing audience interaction to designing slides and developing confidence.
It’s valuable to observe other speakers whenever the chance arises. It can be helpful to make a note of stimulating ideas or effective techniques they use and watch how they manage their body language or deal with tricky questions.
Any sort of speaking opportunity can help in building a CV. These might be paid or voluntary and delivered face to face or online. Many women’s groups such as the Women’s Institute (WI), offer speaker events to members and there is generally a great deal of interest in health-related subjects. The University of the Third Age (u3a) is an international network based on the sharing of educational interests. Most u3a members are over 50 and retired from full time work but there’s no lower age for membership. Science festivals or community-based groups such as Rotary or Lions clubs are other possibilities. Sport and recreation clubs at all levels enjoy talks on nutrition, especially if the content can relate to both health and performance. Many local businesses hold formal events with after-dinner speakers or have staff “awaydays” where nutrition and health topics may fit well.