In my other, non-psychology life, I've been working part-time for the past 2 years as a licensed Zumba® Fitness instructor.
People who know me well usually aren't very surprised by this fact. I'm bubbly, I'm packed with energy, and I'm pretty much constantly moving. It's not a complete shocker that I teach a hyperactive, neon-filled dance fitness class in my free time. I do, however, often get comments about how it seems funny that someone could maintain two different jobs/professions that seem to have nothing in common with each other. After all, how many science writers/scientists moonlight as fitness instructors? Probably not many.
Which is funny. It's funny, to me, that the two professions seem so incompatible on the surface...because whenever I've really stopped to think about it, I've realized that a lot of what I've learned from teaching fitness classes translates quite well into lessons for effective science communication.
So, here. I will share those thoughts with you today. Here are five things that I've learned about being a better science communicator through my tenure as a Zumba® Fitness Instructor:
1. WORDS AREN'T EVERYTHING.
Although some Zumba instructors will use microphones while teaching or verbally cue the correct dance moves (e.g., they will shout out, "Left! Right! Now shake it!"), we are actually encouraged during our instructor trainings not to use words at all. The idea is that every Zumba class should feel like a giant dance party -- how many dance parties have people literally shouting the appropriate dance moves at you? Instead of "verbally cueing," we are actually supposed to "visually cue." If you want someone to switch from their left leg to their right leg, slap your own right leg (or your left leg, if you're mirroring -- more on this later). If you want someone to do a move 4 more times, hold up 4 fingers. If you want your class to repeat the moves from the beginning of the routine, tap your head. There are tons of different ways that instructors are encouraged to use visual signals and body language to get their points across instead of explicitly saying them out loud.
Similarly, it's easy to think that effective science communication must involve writing. But really, so much great teaching happens without words. There are comics, fine art, photographs, videos, and infographics - to name just a little bit of what's out there. Sometimes, the most effective way to get a message across isn't through literally shouting what you want people to learn or do at them -- it's by showing, demonstrating, or visualizing those concepts in a way that makes the entire experience feel more organic, less lecture-y, and more fun.
Video: Zumba Education Specialist Kass Martin, on the right, demonstrates how fun and effective visual cueing can be when done correctly.
2. SOMETIMES YOU CAN SNEAK YOUR BEST LESSONS INTO THE MOST UNLIKELY PLACES.
I cannot tell you how many of my friends and family refuse to attend a Zumba class. "It's too hard." "It's too easy." "It's for old people." "It's for younger people." "I have two left feet!"
Nothing is more frustrating than hearing those excuses, especially when I know -- from having stood at the front of classes for 2 years, looking out on rooms filled with every different kind of student -- that none of those things are true. I've had students who could dance circles around me, and students who couldn't take two steps forward without falling flat on their faces. I've taught kids, senior citizens, and every age group in between.
So, you can only imagine how much I loved it when I got to start an impromptu Zumba class in the middle of my own wedding reception. Suddenly, all of these friends and family members were realizing that -- lo and behold -- this "Zumba" thing that I kept talking about was actually pretty fun. And really, they could all do most of the moves that I was demonstrating just fine. Even in their suits, dresses, and heels.
They certainly didn't come to my wedding expecting to take a fitness class. By sneaking some of my routines onto them when they least expected it, I got at least a few of them to realize that their preconceived notions were not entirely accurate. I got some of them to realize that they might enjoy this activity that they thought they would hate after all.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you schedule a scientific symposium session for the middle of your own wedding. But what I am saying is that there is definitely some value to "sneaking" scientific discussions or interesting new research findings through to people when they aren't feeling defensive or like they have to be in "school mode" in order to engage with it.
Take Facebook, for example. I've used Facebook to share interesting articles on new research findings, relate funny stories pertaining to concepts that I taught in Intro Social Psych, and spark discussions about current scientific debates among friends and family members who would never otherwise be participating in those conversations (I shared a number of examples of this happening in this presentation that I gave last year on using social media for science communication -- see slides 47-66).
In the screenshot on the left here, snipped from a larger thread about the pros and cons of personal genomics services like 23 and Me, I shared information about behavioral genetics research with friends and family members -- information that I myself didn't know about or have access to until several years into my own graduate education.
And in this screenshot on the right, you can see my step-sister-in-law talking about how even though she doesn't typically like reading about science, she likes reading what I post on Facebook -- because she finds my posts (and the subsequent discussions) funny, easy-to-understand, and interesting.
We're used to thinking about science communication happening in certain expected, pre-sanctioned forums. We expect to see it happening at scientific conferences, in newspaper editorials...and sure enough, on science-themed blog networks, like this one here at Scientific American. But just like the people who refuse to set foot in a Zumba class because of what they assume it must be like, we might be missing out on a huge potential audience by limiting our communication efforts to the "expected" spheres. Try sneaking your lessons into new, fun, and unexpected places -- you may be surprised at how many people suddenly take an interest in what you have to say.
Video: Footage of my impromptu wedding Zumba class -- starting with my performance of a routine I'd been doing in class for months, and then being put on the spot to "teach a class" to a song I'd never choreographed or done in class before in my life. I feel like there's probably a bonus lesson somewhere in here about the value of knowing the basics of your field well enough that you can comfortably improv/think on your feet when you're put on the spot and expected to act the part of an expert...
3. BY THE TIME YOU'RE SICK OF SOMETHING, YOUR AUDIENCE IS PROBABLY JUST GETTING INTO IT.
One thing you may not realize about the typical Zumba class is that by the time we're finally ready to debut a new song/routine in class? Believe it or not, we're probably already sick of it.
Think about it. In order to teach a routine, you have to know the song well enough to know the exact progression of moves and where your class is supposed to switch from one sequence of moves into another. In fact, not only do you have to know which moves go with which sections, you have to know the song well enough to be able to anticipate each verse change at least 4 counts ahead of time, so you can cue the next sequence of moves.
Anyone who has suffered the misfortune of being in a car with me at some point in the past 2 years knows -- I am constantly listening to my Zumba playlist. It's basically playing on loop as the background music for my life. I have my playlist on when I'm driving to work. When I'm showering. When I'm unloading the dishwasher. As my alarm in the morning. I need to know those songs backwards and forwards, and the only way to do that is to listen to them. Over and over. And over. And over.
So yes, by the time I finally debut a song in class...I'm already halfway over it. And after we've done it maybe 3-4 times? I'm cringing with embarrassment, assuming that the students in my class must be thinking that this song is SOOOOOO OLD by now. Haven't we done this a million times?!
No, actually. We haven't. We've done it 3-4 times. And usually, that's how many times it takes for most students to even START to remember the moves on their own. That's about the point when they're finally feeling like they know the dance, and are excited to hear the song start playing because they actually know what to do.
It took me a really long time to realize that I had to stop projecting my own boredom with certain songs onto my students -- because it was so easy to forget that I was only sick of my playlist because I had been listening to it nonstop for several weeks before any of my students had even heard it once. If you constantly switch up your playlist, your students will get frustrated because they will always feel like beginners. No one wants a playlist to stay the same for years and years -- but as it turns out, no one wants you to swap out all of your songs every other week, either.
It's far too easy for this projection to sneak into our brains as science communicators as well -- especially for those of us who have certain "beats" or "specialties" in what we cover, which keeps us constantly immersed in a very small, very specific field. For many of my pieces, I'm covering topics that I've been reading about & teaching for years, or writing about events that I've already seen 10 different articles about on Facebook. It's old. It's done already. Does anyone even want to read about this anymore? Far too often, by the time I'm done reading about something, it feels like it's "old news." Does anyone still even care about this? Will anyone be interested? Doesn't everyone know this by now?
As it turns out, people stay interested in things for far longer than I expect them to. By January 4th, I'm convinced no one would still be interested in reading a New Years Resolution post -- except that when I ask them, they are. That big protest happened 3 weeks ago. Would an article on it even still be relevant? Well, technically, maybe it wouldn't be -- but as it turns out, people still want to read it anyway.
Don't underestimate the interest level of your audience. Don't assume people are bored with what you have to say, or that they have moved on to caring about other topics. You really might be surprised by how long people will stay interested in something that you tired out on a while ago.
4. SOME DAYS, YOU WILL JUST BE OFF. KEEP GOING ANYWAY.
Sometimes, I really just don't want to teach class. I'm tired. I'm busy. I'm stressed. My stomach hurts. My head hurts. I just want to stay in my PJs on the couch. I'm in the middle of a really good movie. I've finally gotten into a good work groove, and I don't want to stop my progress.
But here's the thing about being the instructor of the class -- you don't get to skip the gym because you're feeling lazy. There's a room full of people that's counting on you to show up. Not just showing up -- showing up and being NEON.
So, sometimes you have to fake it 'til you make it. You just need to put on your brightest outfit, drink an espresso, take a deep breath, and commit to faking that hyperactive, giddy energy for an hour.
I'm not going to lie and say that fakin' the giddy, positive energy always works miracles. Sometimes you end your class feeling just as lousy as you did when it began. That's alright. It happens. You fulfilled your commitment, you gave your students a good class, and you did what you had to do. But sometimes, miraculously enough, faking that confidence and that energy really does manage to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A lot of the time, self-doubt, not feeling "inspired," or not feeling like we're "in the right place" can hold us back from writing, producing work, or contributing to a discussion that could really benefit from our input. But if everyone only wrote, filmed, drew, or recorded when they truly felt inspired, a whole lot of work would never get done. Learning how to put on a hot pink outfit and fake that manic energy until I started to really "feel" it taught me much broader, valuable lessons about how to push through mental blocks. In fact, Sheryl Sandberg, the current COO of Facebook, taught aerobics for 4 years at Harvard University -- and Sandberg has also spoken fondly about the business-related lessons that she learned from the experience, crediting her time as a fitness instructor with having taught her how to fake confidence and smile through her routines even when she didn't really feel like being there.
5. CHANGING YOUR MATERIAL FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES ISN'T JUST ABOUT CHANGING THE NAME.
I'm licensed in Zumba®, Zumba Gold® (for "active older adults"), Zumba® Kids (for children ages 8-12), and Zumba® Kids Jr. (for children ages 4-7). You might think that tailoring your class to these different audiences just involves picking more age-appropriate music and choosing different logos or images for your marketing -- but this could not be further from the truth. Zumba Gold emphasizes completely different rhythms -- especially those that focus on balance, hip strength, and the footwork involved in recovering from/avoiding falls (e.g., a basic "salsa step" is very good practice for quickly stepping your foot out to catch yourself when you've slipped and you're about to fall down). When you teach kids, you have to work within the limits of their attention spans (e.g., by focusing on 1-2 dances and breaking down each part individually instead of rocketing through 15 different routines in a class), and you have to really understand what motor control skills your students likely have (and have not) developed (e.g., four-year-olds are usually capable of hopping on one foot, but they won't really be able to balance on one foot for longer than 8 seconds until they're five).
If you are aiming your science communication at a specific group -- children, parents, women, men, whatever it may be -- you can't just slap a "WRITTEN FOR ____" label on your piece and call it effectively "targeted." You really need to know your audience. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Motivations? Specific interests? Specific concerns? If you can't tailor your message content to really fit the unique perspective and interests of group that you're targeting, you aren't effectively targeting that group at all. You're just changing the packaging.
6. IF YOUR AUDIENCE ISN'T GETTING YOUR MESSAGE...IT'S PROBABLY YOUR FAULT.
Remember back when I mentioned how many people are "intimidated" by Zumba® Fitness classes because they think they're bad dancers?
That frustrates me. That frustrates me a lot.
It frustrates me because I'm really not a particularly good dancer -- and that's OK, specifically because I don't think that the average student is a particularly great dancer, either. My students signed up for a fitness class. They are there to get their workouts. It is my job to provide them with those workouts. It is not my job to provide them with a dance show while they stand there watching me in awe. That is not what I am being paid to do.
What that means is that the routines have to be simple, easy-to-follow, and easy-to-do. Students who want more of a challenge can always "amp up" routines as they see fit (jump higher, move faster, etc.) -- but if students can't do the basic moves and they're left just standing and watching the instructor in confusion, they're not getting the workout that they paid to get. And that's not their fault. That's yours. That's you not doing your job. It was not the student's "responsibility" to receive a good workout -- it was your responsibility to impart one.
I remember one conversation I had with my husband after I had been watching some Samba routines on YouTube and bemoaning the fact that, for the life of me, I just could not do a fast Samba step. I thought it looked so cool when the instructors in the videos did it -- but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't do it, and I was upset because I really wanted to try doing it in my class.
My husband paused and looked at me. Finally, he said: "Melanie. You are the teacher of this class. You'll be practicing these moves for weeks before your students even try them. If you can't do it? They definitely won't be able to do it. So it shouldn't be in your class. Remember, the class is for them, not for you."
That sentence, simple as it was, changed how I thought about everything. I realized that I needed to bring that sentiment to every single routine. "If you can't do it, they can't do it, so you shouldn't be doing it." My job wasn't to be the Best Dancer Ever and awe my students with my moves. It was to successfully give them their workouts. No matter how great I get at dancing, if I'm not doing that part well, I'm failing.
With science communication, there's often an urge to show off the expertise that we've typically worked very hard to acquire over many, many years. Sometimes, we might not even be consciously trying to show off -- we've just been so immersed in jargon and technicalities for so long, we don't always realize which parts of our knowledge are commonly understood and which parts are more esoteric. If your readers are misunderstanding you or simply not getting what you're saying -- that's on you. It has to be your fault, by definition. Your job is to communicate a point effectively to your audience. If your audience isn't getting that point, it means that you have not done your job correctly. It doesn't matter how beautiful your prose is, or how masterful your grasp of the topic area happens to be. If you have not effectively translated your point from your head to your audience, then you have not done your job correctly, and you need to alter your approach. Period.
7. THINGS WON'T ALWAYS GO PERFECTLY. RUN WITH IT ANYWAY.
When I first started writing this post, I thought it should have five lessons. But then...two friends of mine suggested that really great (and important) sixth lesson.
I didn't want to force another four things just to get the list to an even ten -- especially since this post is quite long already. But I also didn't want to cut any one of the six lessons out to get the list back down to five. So, here is a list of "five things" that is actually a list of six things.
Or, I suppose, it's really seven things now. Because this last lesson is a good one, too -- if things don't go exactly according to plan? Just roll with it. Sometimes your iPod will malfunction in the middle of class. Sometimes a song won't play at all. Sometimes you'll start a song and hear someone groan, 'Ugh, I hate this one." Sometimes you'll realize you accidentally added the unedited version of "All About That Bass" to your playlist instead of the clean one (oops). Sometimes your shoelaces will come untied in the middle of a routine. Sometimes you'll realize that your mind has gone absolutely blank and you have NO IDEA what move is supposed to come next, but you're supposed to start cueing it in 3...2...1...
Things will go wrong. You have to be able to take a deep breath, work with what you have, quickly figure out a Plan B, and move forward. Were you working on a piece, and then suddenly the reference that you were using as a "hook" became irrelevant? Or something else became more relevant? Or someone else scooped your idea? Did an article just come out that completely changes how you interpret the "new" research finding that you were just writing about? Did your nice-sounding list of "five lessons" just become a list of six or seven lessons instead? Well, that's how it goes sometimes. Take a deep breath, adjust your settings, and move forward. It's better to do the best work that you can do than cling to an idea that won't work as well anymore just because you think that's how it "should" be done.
See? The cross-overs are endless. Now I just have to get everyone who reads this to fly out to Reno so you can all sign up for my Zumba classes!
Alright, fine. Baby steps.
Wedding Zumba Video: Studio 27 Video
Wedding Zumba Pictures: Mark Kopko Photography
Jumping Zumba Picture by Kila Paschall Loose
For more on Sheryl Sandberg's aerobics history: