Ask Me Anything

keep calmI gave a few talks this year, most of which left me dissatisfied. I think I delivered the ‘material’ okay and the audiences were receptive but each time I felt depleted and mildly embarrassed. I wrote about one of my experiences here.

This time was different, thanks to sage advice from Carsten.

It happened while I was planning my latest talk for MHSc students at the Joint Centre for Bioethics, and I was panicking. I realized that I was starting to forget my own story (as I usually told it) and wasn’t sure I could muster up enthusiasm for the same old stuff I usually talk about. And anyway maybe they wouldn’t want to hear it, or had heard it already… AND I was booked for almost 2 hours with this particular group. I thought cynically: if people want to hear my ‘greatest hits’ I will be reading from the teleprompter and hopelessly off-key.

I confronted Carsten with my anxiety, daring him to solve the problem.

He didn’t abide my insecurity for long. He reminded me that of course I know my own story, I just need to trust in its current shape. And instead of guessing what people want to hear, maybe I should just ask them.

Ask them? What an idea! I threw out my big speech and opted instead to give a brief lecture on perspectives, tell my story at a high level, then open up the floor for questions. I was prepared for the possibility of a very short conversation.

While I told the story of Owen’s life, I had my usual slideshow of family photos running in the background. The telling of the story took about 15 minutes, then I read 2 brief excerpts from my book. I hoped that the photos as well as the readings would inspire some curiosity. When I was done, I put up a slide of topics that people often ask me about: my family relationships, how Angus is doing, what do I think of certain current events, what do I regret, what advice do I have etc. Then I said, “Okay, what do you want to talk about?”

What a group! We had an in-depth conversation about everything from prenatal testing to disability to family life to my thoughts on so-called patient-centered care. We went right to the end of class and could have gone on. They were thoughtful and considerate but also direct and inquisitive. I was learning right along with them.

So, this is my new format. If you would like me to come speak to your group, prepare to Ask Me Anything.



  1. Love it Jennifer! New take on “go with the flow!” Being present and honouring what is showing up for the Collective! Demonstrating trust and modelling all that you were for Owen! Unconditional Love… You are amazing!

  2. The typical format of presentations pounded into us by academia is becoming, I think, less and less effective as a tool for educating. On the other hand, some fear the model you just wrote about here because, I think, presenters are afraid of being caught off guard with a question and might appear unprofessional or ineffectual if they stumble or seem to be searching when they respond. It takes guts to do it this way, and genuine humility, but yes, you DO know your own story and you can learn to trust your audience to enrich it with their queries and their insights. It’s a much more organic way of teaching/learning that benefits everyone. So good to hear it worked well for you!

  3. You rock. It’s scary giving over control but so worth it. I’m glad you had success but I’m not surprised :)

  4. It’s a wonderful thing when your parnter knows you so well. Kudos to Carsten.

    Now, did I find your presentation at U OF T dispassionate? “Yes, but only because it was rehearsed to the bone!” Your strengths are looking at things anew, or seeing what no one else sees, and not being afraid to say it. With this said, you can cater to a specific audience or group. For example, your topics of discussion may differ when speaking at a medical conference, as opposed to lecturing to students, but never again put yourself in a box. For, it doesn’t do you or Owen Justice.

    When I start speaking out, I plan to balance reason and compassion, in an attempt to capture every mind and touch every soul. The day that I stop doing this, “Is the day, ‘I’m going home!'”


  5. Sounds like a great 2 hours – would love to have been there! Maybe you’ll come to Ottawa…

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