When he’s not studying virus evolution, Tufts Postdoc Ravi Subramanian has another life as a comedy writer. He thinks scientists could learn something from stand-ups about how to engage an audience. A guest post as part of our #reachingoutsci series.
But, the standard biology lecture is this – a presenter gives 10 minutes of background and then spends 30-40 minutes blasting through 150 pictures of Western blots. After an obligatory 5 minutes of questions only one question remains: What was the point of all that?
We as humans love stories, but scientists are not good at telling them. I understand that science is difficult, and asking scientists to also be entertainers is a bit much. However, we should consider the possibility that our inability to entertain and engage non-experts is linked with the decreased funding over the last 30 years.
I don’t think that we as scientists really appreciate what our job is. Those who run labs think, “I have to get grants”, while post-docs, graduate students, or technicians think, “I need to get results so my advisor can get grants.” This should not be the motivation of scientists. Instead, the principal reason we do science should be to communicate science to people.
I have many friends who are comedians, and they talk about economy of words, something lacking in most scientific talks. If you can’t explain what the data on your slide is in a few sentences, your audience probably won’t understand it. Scientists need to understand that data serves to tell a story, not the other way around.
We need to start considering scientific talks as performance art. The best talks I’ve seen are narratives of the pursuit of knowledge. Good speakers don’t need to justify what they study; their research should be intrinsically interesting. I recently saw a fascinating talk about the relationships between parasitic wasps and aphids; not once was it mentioned that aphids are a major agricultural pest, as it had nothing to do with the story.
Also important: humor. All too often, scientists try to prove themselves as “serious researchers”, which leads to dry, boring talks. You’re not expected to be a stand-up comedian, but it wouldn’t hurt to laugh at yourself or provide humor in the talk. Studies have shown that humor enhances knowledge retention, and if you’re going over complicated data, perhaps a joke about how the staining pattern of an antibody in a cell looking like a smiley face might help the audience appreciate your research better.
We need to to engage non-experts. People scoff at research focusing on fruit flies, yet much of our understanding of DNA has come from fruit fly genetics. These non-experts will listen to our talks and just lose interest and not appreciate the value of the research that is taking place. Perhaps the Ph.D.’s we’re making who can’t get jobs in academia or can start working on making science entertaining? Bright minds are fascinated by how the world works, so it’s appalling that we’re not able to get more investment in what we’re doing. I believe better scientific storytelling is the key.
Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. This is one of a series of posts tied into June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public.