Joe Charbonnet delivers his three-minute presentation, “A Stormwater Solution,” at LinkedIn in San Francisco. Photo credit: Anastasiia Sapon.

On May 3, Berkeley Environmental Engineering Ph.D. candidate Joe Charbonnet took first place in the UC-wide Grad Slam competition, held at LinkedIn in San Francisco. Competing against the champions from nine other UC campuses, Joe won the “Slammy” trophy and the $6,000 first prize for his three-minute talk, “A Stormwater Solution.”

Joe’s award-winning performance was the result of months of practicing, revising, and memorizing his talk, first for the Berkeley campus competition on April 4 and then for the systemwide event. “A lot of people have the impression that public speaking is an innate skill that you have or you don’t, but it’s a psychomotor skill just like playing piano or hitting a baseball: you brain tells your muscles what do,” Joe reflected. “How do you get good at any psychomotor skill? You practice and reinforce those neural pathways. It reminds me of the old joke about Carnegie Hall. How do you get to LinkedIn? Practice, practice, practice.”

Wendy Tokuda (2018 Berkeley Grad Slam judge, former KPIX News Anchor, and speech coach) and Joe Charbonnet (2018 Berkeley Grad Slam Champion, Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Engineering) demonstrate “Man-Sand” in the O’Brien Hall lab.

In preparing for the systemwide competition, Joe worked with the Graduate Division’s Graduate Professional Development staff. He also worked with Wendy Tokuda, a former KPIX news anchor and speech coach who served as a distinguished judge in the 2018 Berkeley Grad Slam Competition. “Feedback from the Graduate Division helped me refine the content of my speech to address some gaps, particularly when it came to the scoring rubric, and the incomparable Wendy Tokuda did an amazing job coaching me,” said Joe. “She worked with me to get my syntax into short, easy sentences — perfect for a speaker’s voice and a listener’s ear.”

“Working with Joe was a joy,” Wendy recalled. “He is smart, of course, but what was really special was his authenticity and his charm. He’s a natural communicator — accessible, funny and very real. I also think his work on ‘saving stormwater for a sunny day’ has important value.”

Wendy joined the Berkeley delegation that traveled to LinkedIn to support Joe at the competition, along with Fiona Doyle, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division and Linda von Hoene, Assistant Dean for Professional Development. Excitement was in the air at the event, and adrenaline was pumping. “The experience was very much a production — full of lights and cameras and sound techs mic’ing you up. Even the rehearsal was a whirlwind,” Joe said.

Left to right: Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California; Fiona Doyle, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley; and Joe Charbonnet, Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Engineering and 2018 Berkeley Grad Slam Champion. Photo credit: Anastasiia Sapon.

While Joe delivered his three-minute talk with seamless confidence, there was a nail-biting moment when he had to adapt his script on the fly. “The crowd was great and I fed off of their energy — maybe a bit too much,” he said. “There were so many pauses for laughter and emphasis that I had to cut some of my pitch to still come in under the time limit.”

“It was very tense, when I saw the clock ticking down and I knew he had much more to say but no time,” Wendy remembered. “Then he improvised and made edits on the fly and finished on time. I know how hard that is to do — it was impressive to watch him do it so gracefully.”

So what’s next for Joe? “I’ll speak at commencement in a few weeks (one more speech to practice!), and look forward to finishing my Ph.D. this summer. I’m just starting to look at the job market and hope to find a place to apply my research skills. In between work and school, I might take some time to spend some of that prize money on a nice vacation with my wife.”