Spotlight on Dietitian Speaker David Wiss
David Wiss likes to dive deep into the dark corners of his favorite speaking topics – addictions, eating disorders, and traumatic experiences – in addition to the hive mind of dietitians. Read on as DietitianSpeakers’ Alex Caljean probes the depths.
Alex: Hi David. Talk to me about how you got started as a Dietitian Speaker.
David: My speaking goes back to before I even was a dietitian, but I’ll skip ahead. I got started doing webinars, and the reason I was able to get my information out as a new RD is because I was one of the few people talking about drug addiction. I talked about substance use disorders and how dietitians can be involved in the treatment. I was also one of the few people, at least in the dietetic community, that started a conversation around food addiction. So, I had a lot of what I’d call novel information to share.
My speaking style has certainly evolved over time. I spent a lot of time in my early career trying to figure out what my PowerPoint master slide was going to look like and what kind of approach I wanted to take with my slides regarding pictures and text. Now I rely less on my slides because I’m more experienced, but I do have a long history of making my information dense, which means that I move quickly through it. It’s just who I am, I like fast information. I like fast moving slides. I like rapid fire. But I also want to acknowledge that not everyone else does. So, my initial speaking was as if I’m speaking to an audience of myself, and what I learned over time is that I need to slow down and explain things more for people that have differing levels of prior knowledge.
It’s interesting because someone else might think of it the other way – I’m just starting out so I need to talk like my audience is just starting out, too – when really there will always be a range of experience in the audience. So that’s a good way to put it, to try to know your audience before you get there.
Yeah, I’m biased towards me – I’ve been to many presentations and webinars where I thought, “This is just too basic. This isn’t helping me.” I don’t want a 101; I want a 400-level class! I’m one of those people who wants a much deeper dive.
Alex: Jessica’s phrase is “delete slides one through thirteen”; in other words, don’t spend time on that basic information someone could get out of a book. Skip to the part they can’t get from anywhere but you.
David: Yes. I don’t like the model where speakers assume the audience members don’t know much and you’re supposed to cater to the “lowest level of knowledge.” I think that there is a room for advanced topics and times when people should get really to the nuances and get into specifics and move quickly through things. But the real thing that I’ve learned is that’s not always the case. And that for me, I’ve learned to get to know my audience. And that means I need to ask: Who’s going to be there? What are the participants like? Those are important things. Are they researchers? That’s very different than if it’s nutrition students. Those are things I find myself thinking more about now than I did at the beginning.
Another thing that’s evolved is that in the last year or two, the whole world is waking up to higher degrees of cultural sensitivity, particularly with respect to issues of gender and race/ethnicity. I don’t want anyone in my audience to feel slighted or offended or marginalized. One example is the images I choose for my slides. Things I say and show as a speaker land on people in different ways. I have learned to err on the side of cultural sensitivity whenever possible, especially when we’re talking about things like weight, eating disorders, gender… I think that it’s really, really important for me as a speaker to be sensitive to all possible audience members and their experiences and how they might differ from my own. Not making sweeping generalizations about people or groups is super, super important.
Alex: Can you give an example of what you’re trying not to do?
David: For example, I’ve heard speakers say eating disorders are all about control. Well, maybe some eating disorders are all about control, but are all eating disorders all about control? No. When people make really broad strokes, it can leave people feeling misunderstood or marginalized, and that’s not the way to bring people to the education you’re trying to provide.
Alex: How does speaking fit into the other work that you do?
David: I’m a dietitian for individuals in addiction recovery within a group practice, and I’m also a fourth year PhD student in Public Health. My focus is on trauma and the biological embedding of adversity. I have a minor in health psychology, and my research is about how early life adversity and different exposures: stressors, traumatic experiences and other forms of adversity get biologically embedded and increase someone’s susceptibility to a wide range of negative health outcomes, specifically mental health.
The way this has impacted my speaking is that I’ve moved away from classic dietetic talks and moved toward the biopsychosocial model of health and life course epidemiology. The past two years, my speaking has really been focused on trauma-informed nutrition therapy, speaking a lot to professionals in substance use disorder treatment centers.
Alex: Moving on to the topic of payment. What’s your take? Did you have a transition from speaking for free to asking to be paid?
David: I never really had to make that transition because I’ve always been comfortable asking to be paid. Especially if someone’s charging for an event and they’re making money. If everyone’s paying thirty dollars to watch me give a webinar and I’m not getting paid, that’s going to feel like I’m being taken advantage of.
Meanwhile, there are times when speaking for free is the ultimate marketing tool – as a private practice dietitian, giving a presentation to other mental health professionals and potential referral sources is a huge opportunity for me. If it’s a networking event full of therapists who want to learn more about eating disorders, it’s an honor and a privilege for me to give that presentation. When I give those talks, those people are then referring their clients to me. As a private practice dietitian, there’s nothing more valuable than marketing. Talks are the best form of marketing that exists, in my opinion, at least from the perspective of getting out to other referral sources.
But if there’s no money and no other type of benefit, I think dietitians have a long history of being taken advantage of and being assumed to be volunteers, and I think when people take opportunities to do things for free too much, it creates an expectation which is hurtful to our profession.
Alex: I think that’s definitely a common thread for most people that I hear from that it’s very easy for dietitians to want to kind of over-give and you have to take a step back and consider, “Where is this going to benefit me as well?”
David: Correct. I’m a businessman, so this is one area I’ve tried to be helpful to other dietitians who don’t feel as confident. I’ve always been comfortable charging. I remember someone asked me if I had a sliding scale once, and I jokingly said, “Yeah, I slide up.”
Alex: Do you have any advice for dietitians who aren’t as comfortable expecting to be paid, or even having the conversation?
David: Yes. If people are feeling insecure about being paid, I think it’s not an unreasonable place to start by just asking, “What’s the stipend?” or “Is there a stipend?” Just start there so that there’s no confusion and you know up front, this is the deal.
Alex: You make it sound so simple. Next question: Can you share a memorable speaking experience, something that was either amazingly great or amazingly terrible?
David: FNCE [The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Food & Nutrition Conference & Exhibition] 2018 was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. This was the peak of the opioid crisis and I proposed a talk called Nutrition Interventions Amidst an Opioid Crisis, The Emerging Role of the RDN. The talk was not accepted and it didn’t make any sense to me, given the need and my expertise in it. I reached out the Committee for Lifelong Learning which is the branch of the Academy that plans FNCE. The response was that this topic required another presenter, given that we’re talking about the opioid crisis and it’s probably somewhat outside of the known scope of the dietitian. At FNCE the dietitian always presented information in conjunction with another professional.
I thought about it for a day or two; I really gave it some thought. I’ve always been somewhat of a renegade, so I took a chance, and I sent a letter back to the Committee.
It said I was highly offended by the fact that my parent organization did not think I could stand alone and present information, and that by saying that dietitians aren’t enough to present at our own national conference and by requiring another speaker, you’re basically telling me I don’t have enough experience to stand alone and present my work. I assured them I was an expert, I attached all my peer-reviewed articles that I had published as a first author, and I let them know the other conferences I was speaking at.
And I wrote, “if you don’t believe that I’m capable of presenting my work as a dietitian to my fellow dietitians, that’s fine. I won’t submit any more proposals.” I did a good job on the letter. I was so proud of myself. I wasn’t mean, but I was firm. I was very clear that I thought that I was “enough” to speak at FNCE on my own without needing a co-speaker. I don’t need someone else there. I’m enough. And they gave it some thought and came back and gave me an hour and a half to be a solo presenter.
The talk I gave that year was a full house and I was pleasantly surprised by the attendance and the large room and the feedback that I got. I had a chance to meet a lot of dietitians that I’ve networked with. So it was a very, very memorable speaking experience- doing FNCE as a solo speaker and most importantly, advocating for myself that I was sufficient enough to stand on my own and present this information without needing a co-presenter.
That’s a really good story and goes to show that it’s OK to stand up for what you believe in. If you feel you’re capable of something and people don’t see it, then it’s OK to take a step back and be firm with your decision about it, too.
I’d like to think it might have been the beginning of a new era where dietitians no longer required a co-speaker. You aren’t required to be a sidekick. I noticed that after that, there were other talks where there were solo dietitians. And, you know, I’m presenting again at FNCE this year as a solo speaker so I know that it’s changed.
I think that’s awesome that worked out for you. I think the substance abuse community Is not talked about enough in dietetics either. I used to work for a substance abuse treatment center, so I kind of know that community and don’t hear dietitians speak about it enough. You’re paving the road which is really cool. Do you have any last words of advice for our readers, some encouragement for aspiring speakers just starting out?
Yes. I want to encourage dietitians to be independent thinkers and to not be afraid to go against the “groupthink” in our field. Don’t just accept the popular opinion, don’t be afraid to have differing points of view, don’t just trust whatever your mentor thinks without developing your own clinical intuition. In order to advance the field of dietetics, specifically with eating disorders and mental health, we need people that have cutting edge intuition and explore the edge a little bit more, rather than just spend your whole career being safe and socially accepted. I believe in that.
Thank you David. Appreciate all that you’re doing. To learn more about David or invite him to speak, visit www.nutritioninrecovery.com
Follow David on Social Media: Facebook @davidawiss, Twitter @DavidAWiss, Instagram @davidawiss, Youtube @NutritionInRecovery, Pinterest @NutritionInRecovery, TikTok @davidawiss, and LinkedIn @DavidAWiss.
Have you heard David present? We welcome your comments below.