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Slipping Humor Into Scientific Presentations

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Biologist Sheila Patek didn't know what to expect as she prepared to present her research at TED2004, a conference that covers science, business, and the arts. "I had some warning that it was a big deal and I'd better be prepared," says Patek, who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. She would be delivering her talk -- on the extremely fast feeding strike of the mantis shrimp -- to "just an unbelievable array of the rich and powerful," she says.

The most effective approach to humor is to be cautious and considerate, low-key, and, above all, natural.

After she started her presentation, to about 800 people and a camera crew, "I realized that this audience was completely with me, ... just totally into it," Patek says. "For whatever reason, they just loved this story I was telling, and they found things funny, and I found it funny that they thought it was funny." So she took some chances, and they paid off. Letting her natural sense of humor emerge helped Patek connect to the audience and get her scientific message across. "A successful talk, to me, ... conveys the science in a serious and rigorous way while also engaging as much of the audience as possible. And that's a really good feeling," says Patek, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Humor doesn't always work as well in scientific presentations as it did for Patek on the TED stage. There, the conditions were just right: The audience was receptive, she was prepared and relaxed, and the humor was spontaneous. Those characteristics, say three experts -- Patek, a stand-up comedian, and a scientific communication expert -- are among the most important factors in using humor to your advantage.

Humor is a bonus

Often in scientific presentations, "people are trying to plow through so much data that they kind of forget to engage with the audience," says British biologist turned stand-up comedian Helen Pilcher, who wrote about her career transition in a previous Science Careers article. "Humor is a wonderful way of getting your audience to buy into what you're saying."

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We're celebrating April Fools' Day with this article and another, “Achieving Immortality,” in which Adam Ruben, our Experimental Error columnist ponders how scientists can ensure that future students will read their names when, many years from now, they open their science textbooks on their iPad 15s.

Humor can also help your audience feel relaxed. "When you're watching someone on stage, regardless of who it is, if that person looks uncomfortable, it makes the audience feel nervous," Pilcher says. "Humor is a great way of putting your audience at ease and putting you in control on the stage." This becomes especially important when something goes wrong and you need to undercut the tension, says Michael Alley, an associate professor of engineering education at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who's writing the second edition of his book on scientific presentations.

Sheila Patek (Credit: Courtesy of Sheila Patek)

That's important because a relaxed audience is easier to guide through heavy-duty science. "It removes some of the barriers to actually enjoying science. So instead of worrying the whole time about, 'Oh, did I understand that graph or not?' they get pulled into the talk at various levels," Patek says.

Humor can also reinforce your scientific message. "You clearly need to get the science across succinctly and concisely and clearly, but I think too often that can be quite flat, and humor is a great way of emphasizing things ... and making things more memorable," Pilcher says.

Humor can help you stand out, especially "if you're in a conference where people are spending a whole day listening to back-to-back presentations," Pilcher says. "People are more likely to remember you if you're an entertaining speaker and if you're charismatic and if you're funny."

When not to be funny

Humor is great, but you have to be able to pull it off. And that means, among other things, picking the right circumstances. "You may be making a presentation about a drug to combat cancer and there can be people in the room who would be affected by this drug or would have relatives affected by this drug," Alley says. With a topic like this, the audience is likely to expect you to be serious, he adds.

There are other times when the context isn't right. Patek used humor during a job interview; one of her interviewers told her later that she succeeded in engaging the panel: " 'That was really funny; they were totally engaged. They loved the talk,' " her interviewer said. Unfortunately, her audience didn't think she seemed serious enough. She believes it cost her the job. Another place humor might be considered misplaced is during exams -- such as the Ph.D. oral exam. At any event characterized by gravity or seriousness, humor is probably best avoided.

Helen Pilcher

Playing it safe

Even in the right setting, many types of humor aren't appropriate in a scientific presentation. With senior peers and potential future employers in the room, "you need to judge things very carefully," Pilcher says.

Never be edgy. Stay well clear of any humor that may come across as sexist, convey national stereotypes, or relate to controversial topics. "You don't want to say anything that will ever offend anybody," Alley says.

The most effective approach to humor is to be cautious and considerate, low-key, and, above all, natural. You don't want to seem to be trying too hard. All three interviewees recommend not telling jokes. Instead, add a couple of cartoons to your PowerPoint presentation or tell an anecdote about the circumstances in which you were doing the research, Pilcher suggests. If you're feeling at ease, try saying "something that is unexpected but also having this aspect of truth associated with it, and that makes people laugh because it is a new way to see things," Alley says.

Self-deprecating humor can also be effective as long as it's not overdone. "As a speaker, when you make fun of yourself, you actually are stronger in the eyes of the audience because you're not afraid to say, 'Ok, this is me, I made a mistake,' " Alley says. But do so only when you are well into your talk -- far enough to build scientific credibility, he adds.

Michael Alley (Credit: Courtesy of Åsmund Ødegård/Simula Research Laboratory)

Spontaneous or rehearsed?

In science as in stand-up comedy, it's not just what you say that's funny; it's also how you say it. "The thing is to kind of stay true to yourself but try and be relaxed and comfortable when you are presenting," Pilcher says.

And the best way to do that is to know what you're doing. "You need to know your presentation inside out so that you're not worried about what you're going to say, and then, as you're describing it, just try and let some of your personality come through and be humorous and be anecdotal," Pilcher says. She recommends thinking ahead and rehearsing your humor lines, but "the more comfortable you become with an audience, the more likely you are to be spontaneous." Taking some courses in presentation skills can help you reach that point, she says.

But if you plan humor, make sure it doesn't seem stilted when you deliver it, Pilcher says. Patek believes it's best to just let humor emerge naturally on presentation day -- or not at all. "My Ph.D. adviser, who's actually really funny, ... always said, never plan humor because canned humor and one-liners and stuff, if your audience isn't in the mood for it, it's just totally embarrassing and just, you know, awkward."

Seek feedback

"The single most important thing is to get a tremendous amount of honest, critical feedback on speaking so that you can discover your own personal style and whether it works for a range of audiences," Patek says. Once they've received very diverse and serious feedback, scientists can deliver a presentation that "they're confident about, that they're focused on, that they're excited in. And once they're grounded in that, then it gives them the flexibility to connect to the audience, and the connection to the audience can be through tremendous seriousness ... or through humor," she says. "It just needs to match the person, I guess, and match the nature of the science as well."

If you're in for a giggle (it's April Fools' Day, after all)

- Doug Zongker’s Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken presentation

- Piled Higher & Deeper comics by Jorge Cham (previously profiled on Science Careers)

- The Journal of Irreproducible Results

- The Improbable Research journal

- A list of middle school students' scientific statements that are as wrong as they are funny on Middle School Comic Relief

- A list of science jokes (with some explanation of the underlying science) compiled by Jupiter Scientific

Elisabeth Pain is Contributing Editor for Europe.

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