This past weekend I participated in the Association of Medical Illustrators annual meeting (hashtag #AMI2014), held with the hospitality of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA.

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 a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Honours and tend to paint dead ocean critters with wings on them.
  • Many members of the Association of Medical Illustrators 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. And their work can save lives. So: better.

My tips:

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.

2. Don't read from the slides. Slides should be visuals to illustrate your points, not where you keep your points. 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.

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. In this case, I tried to share why I think Twitter is a great tool for nuanced, complicated arguments by using what's know as the "Twitter essay". Judging from the reactions on Twitter, I hope it was useful and people from the AMI conference give it a try.

Oh and in case you're wondering about the Twitter essay:

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.

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. The AMI members are adept at all of these things too, so by bringing a bit of Symbiartic into their conference, hopefully we'll see more AMI members in #sciart spaces on Twitter, Google+ and right here in our comments.

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Thank you to Bob Morreale, the AMI and the Mayo Clinic for the hospitality and for inviting me to speak!