Talking About Gardening

A popular activity whenever gardeners get together is for someone to give a talk. This links the speaker’s desire to share what he or she knows about gardening and the listener’s thirst for learning something—anything—about the enduring mysteries of horticulture.

Often, there are pictures.

When a speaker addresses the methods, techniques, or practices of an aspect of gardening, the presentation amounts to teaching. When teaching equals performance in the front of the room, good teaching (according to some studies) requires the teacher to have knowledge of the subject, have a positive attitude toward the subject, and to be prepared.

The same basic criteria apply to talks about gardening.

Being prepared, in particular, means having specific goals for the talk, organizing the information for clarity, and providing a level of detail that is right for the audience.

More is needed, however, for the talk to be successful. The additional criteria apply mostly to the method of the presentation:

  • Speak loudly enough for everyone to hear
  • Make eye contact with audience members
  • Listen to questions from audience members (and observe their body language)
  • Restate and respond to individual questions so the full audience can hear
  • Know when to stop

The Internet contains more ideas for effective public speaking. Many recommendations are about the style of presentation, e.g., incorporating humor, adding personal anecdotes, pausing occasionally for dramatic effect, etc.

With many familiar recommendations like those listed here, we might expect generally successful talks about gardening, but really good presentations are actually exceptional.

A recent presentation for the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society exemplified a good talk on gardening. The speaker was Gunnar Eisel, a long-time college professor of music theory and history, a long-time collector of cactus & succulent plants, and general manager of the Cactus & Succulent Society of America.

His experience in public speaking was made evident when he appeared fully equipped with his own computer, digital projector and a sound system of very good quality. Clearly, he had one too many encounters with inadequate technology provided by his hosts.

Gunnar Eisel titled his talk, “From Windowsill to the Poor House: Building and Maintaining a Cactus and Succulent Garden.” He organized his information in sections: Why Collect?; Kinds of Collections; Sources of Plants; Right-sizing Your Collection; Visual Tours of Selected Collections; and Culture Recommendations.

His presentation reflected his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for his subject, and maintained the rapt attention of his audience for about one hour with good pacing, well-selected images and short video clips, and friendly humor.

Once you’ve enjoyed a really good talk on gardening, it’s tempting to be rough on speakers with less expertise, but this talk has inspired the Society to develop a tip sheet for its future speakers on gardening topics. That is work in progress. Sources of potentially useful ideas include the website for Great Garden Speakers, which provides links to gardening experts, and Jeff Haden’s “20 Public Speaking Tips of the Best TED Talks.”

Not every garden group is prepared to bring in outstanding speakers, but expert gardeners who share their expertise with others can refine their presentation skills.

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