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Talking the Talk

March 12, 2012

Emily Briggs


It might seem a bit odd to start my sustainability skill collection with gravitas and communications. Some would argue that being a breathtaking public speaker and presenter are qualities that every professional should have. And I couldn’t agree more. But there are two things I want to emphasize:

1)    Really compelling public speakers are few and far between
2)    Sustainability professionals have a unique responsibility to foster understanding, create buy-in and engage a wide array of stakeholders

As such, an articulate, energizing sustainability communicator is a priceless asset. Whether they’re creating the business case for sustainability to the C-suite, integrating sustainability across functional areas of an organization, developing business with new clients or training employees on what sustainability means to them, impeccable communication skills are paramount. So with that in mind, I set out to collect my first sustainability skill.

The Plan
•    Step 1: Attend a workshop on public speaking
•    Step 2: Inspire myself with a little gravitas
•    Step 3: Lead my group’s midterm briefing presentation

Step 1: Attend a Workshop on Public Speaking
To begin, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on Public Speaking: Strategy and Delivery; the first in a new series offered by the Earth Institute. In an evening session packed with students, the eloquent Joann Baney took to the stage and graced us with a few insights.

Firstly, feeling anxiety before making a speech is normal. According to Joann, public speaking is considered to be the no. 1 fear in the United States – more frightening than financial problems and even death (yikes)!

When it comes to interpersonal communication, Joann reminded us that:

•    55% of what’s communicated is non-verbal (body language, stance, gestures, eye contact, dress, touch)
•    38% of what’s communicated is vocal (the sound of your voice, volume, rate, intonation, pitch, enunciation)
•    And a measly 7% of what’s communicated is the actual words you say

So how do we overcome our fears and present comfortably, professionally and with confidence? Here are some of Joann’s pointers:

•    Decouple your visible and invisible nervous symptoms. The good news is most nervous symptoms aren’t visible to the audience, so despite your sweaty palms or racing heart, you can still present with confidence.
•    Be sure not to slouch, cross your arms or place your hands on your hips.
•    Get a sense of what your natural gesturing style is by watching yourself in front of a mirror.
•    Make eye contact. We’re a very heavy eye-contact culture because we consider it a mark of honesty, credibility and forthrightness. Before you get up to speak, search for friendly faces in different places in the audience and focus your gaze on them.
•    Remember that your voice is a wind instrument. In general, lower voices tend to command more authority, so record yourself and get to know how you sound. Do you add filler words (“um, er, like, you know, sooo, okay, now, ah“)? If so, when do you do it? Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Linearly? Anecdotally? Tangentially?
•    And ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS rehearse out loud before the day of your presentation. This will help you untangle any knots before you get up in front of a live audience.

Joann’s presentation was rich with helpful advice. My biggest takeaway was that being a compelling speaker starts with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Once you can develop a keen (and ideally objective) understanding of your natural strengths and weaknesses, then the hard work is done. All that remains is coming up with a customized blend of tools to help you improve and a lot of practice.

Step 2: Inspire Myself with a Little Gravitas
Later in the week, I found myself at Barnard College for a meeting with the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. For those of you in New York City, Athena offers an impressive selection of professional workshops designed for women leaders, including one by Raleigh Meyer – a self-proclaimed gravitas guru (how cool does that sound?). Curious, I sat down to Raleigh’s presentation (see below) in which she elaborates on the six elements of creating good, gravitas-y impressions with an audience.


Above and beyond the content of Raleigh’s presentation, what I found interesting was simply watching her delivery. I noticed  that she uses the speed and tone of her voice very intentionally, she gestures often but not excessively and she smiles at her audience, almost as if she’s inviting them to engage with her.

Step 3: Lead My Group’s Briefing Presentation
All of these tips and tricks were wonderful, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. So when the opportunity arose to deliver a presentation about my group consulting project to faculty and students at the Earth Institute, I jumped at the chance to put myself to the test. Here’s how the magic unfolded:

  • The project is technical to say the least, so the group and I distilled the key messages we wanted the audience to remember.
  • I prepared an initial draft and presented it live to my group (with my notes in hand). We all provided our feedback and edited the presentation until we were satisfied.
  • I presented a dry run in front of our faculty advisor and my group. It was very well received, although we made some additional changes to the ordering of the content and refined how some of the more technical information was presented.
  • Once everything was in its place, I practiced and practiced and practiced. I practiced in front of the mirror, I practiced in front of the video recorder and I practiced out loud on my walks to campus. I even snuck into the auditorium where the final briefing would happen and practiced to an empty room!

On the evening of the actual presentation, I felt comfortable knowing that I had mastered my content and was prepared (thanks in no small part to the support and patience of my group). When I got up in front of the audience, the smiling faces and approving nods gave me the courage to channel my inner gravatista (my new favorite made-up word) and everything else just seemed to flow naturally. And while I was still pretty nervous, all of my practice really helped me trust myself to find my words, deliver the presentation confidently and make my team proud.

Have you ever had to make an important presentation? How do you prepare? Does public speaking come to you naturally? What do you think makes a presentation flawless? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Spring 2012 Semester Courses

January 27, 2012

Emily Briggs


The beginning of a semester is a magical time. The nerd in me loves flipping through course catalogs and browsing through syllabi. It’s all about opportunity and the prospect of learning new and useful skills that will help me help others down the road. Lately I’ve been buzzing around campus attending lectures and looking for my perfect four courses. It’s been no small task given our ability to pick from impressive rosters of offerings at Columbia’s many schools, but I finally made my selections. The way the scheduling worked out, this semester is weighted toward more management-focused credits whereas the Summer will see me completing the last of my quantitative and science-based credits. You’ll also notice some non-traditional choices below. I did quite a bit of thinking about how best to use the rest of my time at Columbia over the holiday break, and these selections reflect some of the revelations. Alas, another post on that coming soon. Enjoy!

Managing Conflict in Organizations, Columbia University’s Teachers College

Professor Michele Riley, J.D.

In this course, I’ll be reviewing the latest research findings about what causes conflict in organizations, how the issues are framed, how the conflicts are managed and how conflict impacts the parties involved and the organization as a whole. I’ll be grounded in theories that support my learnings about organizations and the human interaction within them and will apply these theories in various activities, such as analyzing case studies, participating in simulations and designing conflict management systems. I will also be engaging in skill building activities, such as role plays, to learn how to better prevent conflicts from occurring and to intervene once conflicts have developed.

Managerial Negotiations, Columbia Business School

Professor Kathleen Kennedy

While some people may only think of negotiation as the formal exchange of offers in a business setting, negotiation is truly a pervasive part of daily life. Effective negotiators are able to get the most out of a deal because they assess, balance, and then maximize the instrumental and relational value of a deal. It is the aim of this course to equip me with relevant theory and practical skills in two fundamental ways.

Through role-play exercises, lecture, reading, and discussion, the course begins with basic dynamics in negotiation and adds complexity in stages, including multiple issues, multiple parties, mediation, agents, and coalitions. Some exercises involve numerical analyses, others revolve around qualitative conflicts. By the end of the course, I should be able to comfortably and confidently approach most any conflict or negotiation: analyzing its nature, understanding my own objectives, and plotting an approach that will give me the best shot at achieving their goals.

Capstone Workshop

Professor Kizzy Charles-Guzman

The capstone course is a client-based workshop that integrates each element of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management curriculum into an applied project, giving me hands-on sustainability management experience. I will serve on a team and undertake a special analytic project and serve as a consultant for a real-world client; operating under the same real-world constraints as regular sustainability managers. The workshop will also sharpen my analytical and communication skills by allowing me to apply my previous experience and knowledge gained from the program to real-world problems.

My Project

Client: New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT)

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of what the NYC DOT is up to these days. Ever since Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan presented to my Urban Public Policy class last semester about the DOT’s role in PlaNYC 2030, I’ve been head over heels about its sustainability merits and the material progress that’s being made across the City. So when the DOT appeared on our client list, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of this Golden Age of transportation planning in NYC.

The project itself pertains to PlaNYC’s goal of reducing combined sewer overflow (CSO) volume by capturing rainfall from impervious surfaces in certain areas of the City. Our job will be to help the DOT identify appropriate surface areas using GIS data for the application of pervious pavement treatments to mitigate the impacts of stormwater runoff. Timely, applied, relevant, FUN!

Green Accounting

Professor Satyajit Bose

Accounting for environmental costs is a broad area covering a number of accounting systems designed to measure the multi-faceted and complex interactions between economic activity and the natural environment.

This course introduces practitioners of environmental science and sustainability management to a number of approaches to accounting for environmental costs for corporations and countries. The course provides a basic introduction to financial accounting and analyzes the income statement, cash flow statement and the balance sheet from a US GAAP perspective using examples of cleantech and resource extraction companies.  Conventional cost and management accounting concepts for business entities are introduced, with a focus on accounting for waste, depletion and byproducts. Requirements for accounting for environmental liability under US GAAP are introduced and critically evaluated.  Green accounting methodologies with a systems focus such as life cycle analysis and sustainability metrics are presented.

How do you feel about the perfect four? Advice, questions and suggestions are welcome below in the comments section.

Read more about which courses I took in Fall 2011.

The Emily Briggs Best of Sustainability: 2011

January 19, 2012

Emily Briggs


Having stood on the shoulders of environmental giants and business innovators for decades, the sustainability movement is gaining momentum at an incredible pace. Keeping up to speed is near impossible, but hey, can you blame a gal for trying?

Below is an anthology of some of the most memorable, innovative or nifty sustainability-related miscellanea that came into my world in 2011. Enjoy! Read more


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