Six years ago, I was an invertebrate keeper (read: bugs) in the Herpetology Department (read: reptiles) at the internationally renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. As part of my job, I was tasked with presenting a live animal show featuring venomous snakes and lizards. It’s one thing to give a public talk to hundreds of people, another to do it three times a week, and a whole other ball game to do it while (safely) showcasing a rattlesnake!
I struggled. Not just with the public speaking, but also with finding a way to authentically connect with my audience and have a little stage presence. So, I signed up for an Improv 101 class. It was a purposeful and terrifying decision for an introvert, but I’m so grateful I made the leap. I’m now more confident and comfortable on stage, I’m sincere and funny with my audiences, and I’ve had tremendous professional growth due to my enhanced skill set. I became an effective science communicator, and opportunities opened up.
Bringing humor into science isn’t a secret: NASA is currently looking at sending a team to Mars, and based on research by Jeffrey Johnson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, one member could be a class clown. After studying tight-knit and isolated crews on behalf of the space agency, Johnson found that it’s vitally important to have individuals that are funny because they boost morale and build bridges—critical when flying in space (or salmon fishing in Alaska or science-ing in Antarctica). Research has shown that appropriate use of humor in a professional setting is advantageous to individuals and teams.
Every scientist should take a page out of NASA’s playbook: be funny to further your project, your funding and even your career. And the easiest and fastest way to become a better, more relaxed jokester is to take an improv class. Take the leap! If you’re not ready to do that, at least learn some improv tricks:
Open your ears. Listening isn’t just waiting for your turn to talk. It’s a skill that’s crucial to improv, where you need to respond quickly and confidently, to listen to what your partner just said—which means you can’t be distracting yourself with thinking about where the conversation might be heading. Active listening leads to open-mindedness, helps you see new ideas and keeps your attitude positive—all of which are essential for any collaborative scientist. If you’ve ever been dead set on a hypothesis only to find yourself unsupported by colleagues or by data, it’s an advantage to train yourself for the unexpected. Scientists might find their aha! moment while lightheartedly conversing with friends. Inspiration can come from anywhere, once a person lets go, listens and contributes.
Engage in dialogue. A comedian analyzes the mundane from a variety of angles and finds the thread between two points. Connecting two seemingly disparate ideas inspires smiles at the unexpected twist. Likewise, an improviser is comedically trained to think “yes, and…” It’s important to say yes to good ideas, but that isn’t quite enough. Following up with “and” starts a dialogue.
For example, consider how and-ing helps develop the scientific scope of a project: Scientist 1: “Let’s send a probe to the asteroid Bennu.” Scientist 2: “Yes, let’s go to Bennu and retrieve a sample.”
Have fun. Funny scientists are better teachers and communicators. Being able to insert puns, alliteration and jokes into their presentations helps scientists communicate with their audiences. If you want people to learn, they need to listen. And you can get them listening by getting them laughing. Essentially, the funniest person in the room gets the attention. That attention should go to you and your work! Need a great example? Check out True Facts on YouTube. Ze Frank takes a topic (usually an animal) and narrates its behavior and fun facts over video clips. “True Facts about the Octopus” has been viewed over 11 million times!
Prefer #scicomm in book form? Read Alan Alda’s If I Understood You, Would I have This Look on My Face? Better yet, sign up for the Alan Alda Center’s Communicating Science Workshop, which uses improv to build storytelling skills.
As a scientist, your career will advance as your humor skills improve. Imagine giving a memorable conference talk, nailing an elevator pitch with wit, or having your scientific article (or blog or tweet) go viral. As your skills improve, so will your presence!
Take a class. Sign up for an Improv 101 Class. Yes, it’s terrifying, but remember, improv is a team sport. You are never on your own. It’s the most supportive environment imaginable! Most major cities have comedy theaters, many of which teach classes. The Tucson Improv Movement teaches six levels of improv classes along with sketch and stand-up, in addition to hosting two amazing comedy festivals. Are you a female on the East Coast? The Engaging Educator is for you. Increase confidence and communication skills while surrounding yourself with badass women. Or, if you’re located in Chicago or L.A., The Second City, whose graduates include Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Aidy Bryant, or the Upright Citizens Brigade (Poehler is a co-founder) might be up your alley.
And finally, if there’s a pun or double entendre that you can appropriately lean into, do it. There’s a reason Neptune is a less memorable planet than Uranus. Will taking an improv class make you a better scientist? Like a proton, I’m positive.