December 9th, 2013
This week I have a letter in Science — the culmination of a rather amazing series of highs and lows.
THE FACE OF INNOVATION. Megan Bailiff was the one responsible for our very effective plenary panel at CERF on November 5 which produced this Letter in Science this week. She is the one who changed the course of events at the very start by saying to me, “Everyone has had enough of the standard droning panel discussions — we want you to try something different using your narrative approach — even if it fails — we just want something new and different.”
LIFE IS GREAT, TERRIBLE, GREAT, TERRIBLE, GREAT …
HIGH: INVITATION – Last summer my good friend Megan Bailiff asked me to join a plenary panel at the November meeting of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Foundation, telling me it would be a great chance to promote my new book and app, so I agreed.
LOW: MIX-UP – In September I looked at the website for the event — the panel was about Sea Level Rise with zero mention of communication, and I looked like a doofus up against two world experts on Sea Level Rise since I know nothing on the subject.
HIGH: CLARITY – I called Megan, fairly grouchy, saying, “What have you gotten me into?” but she explained that was exactly the idea — she wanted me to “do a makeover on the panel” as she assured me the two panelists were DYING to have me completely overturn their standard presentations, which sounded like fun to me.
LOW: GET LOST – Turned out the two panelists had no interest in having me experiment on them (for which I couldn’t blame them), they had limited time to prepare for the event, one of them was out of the country, and within a couple days we were caught up in an email spat over my novel ideas and their preference for the usual thing.
REALLY LOW: I QUIT – After viewing their combined 94 slides and sensing their resistance, I did the dignified thing — I quit. I called Megan. She was graceful in accepting my withdrawal, only conveying sadness as she had such high hopes, and then …
HIGH: I UNQUIT – Honest to goodness — just before I hung up, an email popped up from one of the two panelists — they had discussed it, decided they were senior enough that they could endure one major debacle in their career, so why not — let’s give it a shot. Within ten minutes I was on Skype with him and we were instantly connecting on every question — I would ask, “Have you got a story that shows this …” he would answer, “Yes, I know exactly what you want, yes, I’ve got that.” The vision was springing together.
LOW: ABANDONMENT – A few weeks before the meeting Megan sent us an apologetic email saying she had to travel to Fiji in November and wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting to see our panel.
HIGH: ANTICIPATION – The three of us panelists met at the hotel the day before the big event, all genuinely excited, more nervous than any of us had been in years in preparation for a presentation. We had put in a lot of effort and figured something good would have to come of it, but still, you never can tell how these things can go seriously wrong.
SHOCKING LOW: BOATING ACCIDENT – Mike Orbach showed up for dinner shaken, having just received a text message from Megan — she was on her way to Brisbane, Australia, from Fiji where she had been involved in a serious boating accident, so severe they couldn’t handle her injuries at the hospitals in Fiji.
SHOCKING HIGH: GREAT PERFORMANCE – With her spirit hanging over the event, we put on the panel, and it exceeded our expectations producing incredible raves from the 1,000 audience members (detailed here). Basically our grand experiment worked!
HORRIFYING LOW: NEAR FATALITY – Later that day the details emerged about Megan’s accident — she nearly lost her life — she was run over by a boat while snorkeling in front of it — the impact of the bow fractured her skull and shattered her shoulder then the boat veered and ran over her — the propeller hit her back, breaking ribs, puncturing a lung, crushing her left femur, slicing her calf muscle and heel. She was eventually “jet-evaced” to Brisbane (which has a world class trauma center) where she underwent 7 operations in 8 days.
THE FINAL CONSOLATION PRIZE: MY LETTER IN SCIENCE – So … after all that … Megan is now back in San Diego where she’s in for months of further work and physical therapy, however she’s already stunned the doctors by recovering much faster than expected. In just a month her shoulder bones are healing and ahead of all their predictions. The thing that I can’t get over in my conversations with her is how consistently upbeat and positive she is with her attitude. Not one complaint, just focused on moving forward in her physical therapy.
And guess what — this is not a coincidence — that this person who came to the planning of a big event with the attitude of “let’s try something new” is also the fighter who so impresses the doctors.
Anyhow, wow. What a short, strange trip. The event that nearly melted down turned out to be one of the coolest experiences of my entire professional life (you can view the entire CERF plenary panel here). Megan ended up being “incredibly lucky” to have survived such a horrific accident (though as she and I have agreed, it would have been “incredibly luckier” to have never been hit by the boat).
Overall, the entire experience tracks back to Megan’s initial desire to do something new. This is the spirit that is desperately needed in science and environmental communication. The world has changed. The audiences have changed. We can’t go on doing the same old dull presentations. This stuff is too important. There has to be innovation. For this, we need more people like Megan Bailiff who are willing to push things in that direction.
I really mean this.