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Improv for Scientists: A communication tool

Steven Jaret

by Steven Jaret

Graduate Student

It’s 8:30 am on a Friday morning and 8 young researchers stand in a circle throwing imaginary balls of energy at one another. A few minutes later they rhythmically chant “Zip, Zap, Zop” in unison. Not a typical start to the day for most scientists. This scene, however, is quite common at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Though it may just look like fun to passersby, these researchers are learning to hone their communication skills through a unique blend of theater-based training and guidance from Alda Center science communication experts.

The Alda Center understands that scientists are passionate, brilliant individuals eager to share their knowledge with the world. However, sometimes, that energy, enthusiasm, and engagement gets lost as we force ourselves into “lecture mode.”

In response, the Alda Center trains scientists to stay connected with their audiences by using techniques of improvisational theater. These techniques bring scientists back from the brink of boring and put the focus on transmitting knowledge and inspiration to others. They also provide scientists with skills to distill their message into understandable nuggets of knowledge.

As a graduate student at Stony Brook, I have had the great opportunity to participate and be a part of the Alda Center. I have now completed my fourth class and I am fully committed to their ways. I’m committed because it works. I can tell you from first-hand experience I am not only more effective in communicating, but I am also better able to recognize when I’m not communicating well and can put myself back on track.

RIS4E team members Glotch and Hurowitz playing the game "Mirror" to learn about connecting with their audience.

RIS4E team members Glotch (left) and Hurowitz (right) playing the game “Mirror” to learn about connecting with their audience.

 

RIS4E PI Glotch and graduate student Joe Tamborski playing "Beaker Bagel" to learn about removing jargon.

RIS4E PI Glotch (left) and graduate student Joe Tamborski (right) playing “Beaker Bagel” to learn about removing jargon.

 

Here’s what 2 years of training has taught me:

1) You’ve got to pay attention. Not to yourself, but to your audience.

The biggest mistake we can make when talking to others is to not pay attention to the listeners. Too often we focus on ourselves when communicating.

“Did I say that correctly?” “Am I doing a good job?” “Do they like me?”

Don’t fall into that trap. It’s not about you. Communicating is a 2-way conversation. You must connect with your listeners. Acknowledge their existence. Respond to their reactions. Make them a part of the conversation.

 

2) Make it personal.

This point is often the hardest for scientists to swallow, but arguably it’s the most important point. As scientists, we are frequently trained to remove personal attitudes, biases, and ambitions from science. This certainly is important while doing the science–but not particularly effective when talking about the science.

People connect to other people on a human level. Your audience wants to know and see what motivates you, what drives you, and what separates you from their vision of hundreds of other scientists in white coats locked away in sterile labs. The experiences you’ve had make you relatable to others. It is ok and actually advisable to show who you are when you’re communicating. People will care more about your science if you can get them to care about you.

 

3) Jargon. There’s always so much jargon.

As scientists we have lots of very specific terms for very specific things. While these terms mean a lot to us, they don’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else. When communicating, getting rid of jargon is an absolute must. This is hard. In my experience, I often don’t even realize when I am using jargon. The best example of this from my experience was in my second class with the Alda Center. One of my fellow students, who studies climate change, gave a 5-minute description of his work with repeated use of the phrase “human-induced.” Four minutes into the talk, our instructor stopped him and said, “Can you say ‘we’ instead of ‘humans’?” Immediately you could see the lightbulbs go off above all of our heads. None of us had even realized this was strange. We all use language like this everyday. But yes, she was right. The slight change from saying “humans are causing climate change” to “we are causing climate change” drastically changes the entire tone. Simply saying “we” makes a more powerful statement because it’s now connected directly to us. It’s no longer some distant thing but instead is in-your-face and real.

 

4) Don’t be afraid to step out of the box and try non-academic writing.

Since I embarked on my journey to become a better communicator I’ve published about my work and perspectives in a variety of new media outlets: Letters to the Editor, Blog posts, Op-Eds–even a website comment section. I would have never done this before. In my mind these communication channels were unprofessional, not going to help advance my career, and therefore not worth my time. I’ve since decided that’s actually a fairly stuck-up attitude. Yes, my professional career is evaluated through peer-reviewed publications, but to dismiss these other outlets as “beneath me” fosters a disconnect between scientists–including myself–and the general public. If our goal is to engage the public, then we should engage them on their own turf. Bring our knowledge to them. Just try it. I did. The integrity of my academic world didn’t implode. In fact, it was kind of fun. (Wait. Scientists are allowed to show that we have fun?)

 

5) These skills apply to communicating with other scientists, too.

The Alda Center primarily focuses on helping scientists communicate with non-scientists. Our goal is to help scientists be able to explain what we do to our uncles and aunts at Thanksgiving dinner. Really, though, these skills are also directly applicable to communicating with other scientists. As we get super specialized in our own fields it’s hard to remember that in many cases, few people understand your work like you do. I’ve come to realize that the way I explain my work to my labor-law-attorney cousin and a fellow planetary geologist should actually be 90% the same. Everyone appreciates plain language, even fellow scientists.

 

Now, at this point, I’m sure many of you are thinking, “This sounds great. But how can someone who’s not affiliated with Stony Brook participate?” Well, fear not my friend. There are opportunities for scientists not based at Stony Brook University to learn from the Alda Center.

They offer programs that both bring scientists to Stony Brook and also offer traveling programs where they come to you. Visit their website, http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/, for more information about the next program near you.

Furthermore, for those involved with the Solar System Exploration Research Institute (SSERVI) program, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is a partner of the RIS4E team. Together, we will be offering a Science Communication Workshop associated with the NASA SERVII Exploration Science Forum, focused on improvisation techniques and distilling your message. SSERVI Forum participants. Stay tuned for details about how to sign up for the workshops, and know there will be opportunities for both well-established and up-and-coming researchers.

See you this summer. I’ll bring the imaginary balls of energy!

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