Improvisation techniques can help scientists hone their key messages when addressing peers at conferences, says Catherine Seed.
Guest contributor Catherine Seed
You’ve spent weeks in the lab collecting, processing and analysing your data, and you’ve filed for publication. All this work took a lot of effort, time, organisation and collaboration (and coffee). Finally, you are now free to show the data to the world at the next conference (or most probably to your research group).
This step might seem like the easiest part. Once you know the results, you can share them. Talk about them until the cows come home. After all, you’ve just spent years working on them. You know them better than anyone else. Yet it seems impossible to cram all you know – the intricacies of your study, the broader context, the unexpected results, the side-projects, how the variables link together – into a 15 minute talk at a conference! Which points should you make, and with what detail? And how? How is a presentation structured again?
Over the past couple of years I have discovered an unusual source of guidance for constructing and communicating information: Improv comedy. Recent media attention has highlighted institutions like the Alan Alda Centre at Stony Brook University and ImprovScience which teach improv’s benefits in communicating science. When you strip it back to its fundamentals, improvisation is about extremely effective communication, active listening and engagement. Improvisers are able to volley complex ideas to each other, and to tell layered stories, all in the moment. The capacity to do all of this while also entertaining an audience is astounding to watch, takes great skill and takes years to master.
Over recent months I have been incorporating and testing ideas from my improv training into my PhD presentations. Immediately applicable and amenable to technical presentations, the simple principles of improvisation can make the process of presenting less daunting, your key message clearer, and the presenting process vastly more collaborative. Here are three key lessons I’ve picked up from the world of improvisation.
Make your audience look good
The reality is that we can’t convey the entirety of our research in a mere 15 minuntes. However, if we have options regarding which data/context to present, the first place to look is our audience. What are their interests, backgrounds and expertise? The act of focussing on engaging your audience makes the presentation a two-way process between the presenter and the audience. Tailoring the content ensures that you provide the right level of context and detail to make your findings relevant and interesting, and makes your audience look good.
Repetition is a tool
Repeating or rewording the key message, findings or implications of a talk makes it more memorable. While I admit that too much repetition risks becoming irritating, some repetition makes it easier to see the links between your key points, and signals to the audience that what you are saying is a key piece of information. One useful tool is ‘sister sentences’, where repetition by reorganisation of a sentence can reinforce an idea. Changing the ordering of the way we convey our findings (finding the ‘sister’ to what we have said), helps the audience to link the ideas you are presenting together.
Engage in deep listening
As an undergraduate student, the most nerve-racking, sweaty-palm inducing fear of a presentation began with the phrase “Does anyone have any questions?” I would invariably try to prepare before my talk for any possible questions that could arise. The problem with this approach is that I risked not actually listening to the question, or answering it superficially or tangentially. Improvisers train to listen ‘by being altered’, so that the answers they give depend on the specifics of what has been said to them, and therefore cannot be planned. This small change has had the positive effect that I approach questions with interest and discovery rather than fear and dread.
Catherine is a winner of the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition. She is also a PhD student at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia. Currently in the third year of her PhD, she is researching the evolution of sex and anisogamy, using experimental evolution to model the evolution of sperm and eggs.