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Why I don't use humor in scientific presentations

I’m not sure exactly when I started putting jokes in my scientific presentations, but I know why I started. I also know when and why I stopped.

I started sometime during college because, as a student who had sat through innumerable lectures, I enjoyed and appreciated when professors included rare moments of levity to make a point, enrich a metaphor, or even just keep us awake. Those moments stood out: “Blah blah citric acid cycle blah blah succinic dehydrogenase blah blah DOONESBURY CARTOON blah blah pyruvate.”

I’m a scientist and a comedian. … But when I present my own research at a meeting, I’m completely humorless, like a Senate subcommittee hearing, or an Adam Sandler movie.

So I added a few jokes to my own talks to make them the kind of presentations that I would want to hear. It seemed reasonable. I wasn’t delivering a 10-minute standup set about neutrons walking into a bar; I was just giving a few brief, silly diversions and then getting back to the science.

By the time I was partway through grad school, I had established a pattern of ending every lab meeting presentation with a joke slide: an embarrassing picture of one of my labmates, or some kind of fun with Photoshop. Then, during one lab meeting, I presented results that displeased my adviser, in terms of both quality and quantity. As I was presenting my second-to-last slide, he interrupted to ask, “Is that it?”

I stammered, “Uh ... there’s … a joke slide at the end.” Silence. I flipped forward to the joke slide. “So, um, this is Jeff’s head Photoshopped onto the body of a goat. Because … it’s … you know, kind of funny. With the goat body. And that’s … yeah.”

My adviser never outright said so, but I knew what he was thinking: You had time to make the goat picture, but you didn’t have time to improve the actual science? I wanted to explain that, in the same way that people who are full can still eat dessert and claim it’s destined for “a different stomach,” science-improving and goat-Photoshopping were not mutually exclusive activities, but I didn’t think it would bolster my cause.

At that moment, I quietly decided that—at least in the eyes of those who held my career in their hands—jokes could only sabotage my presentations, not enhance them. So I stopped using humor in my scientific talks.

The result, 10 years later, is an odd situation. I’m a scientist and a comedian, having discovered that doing both jobs relieves me of the obligation to be especially great at either. Being a science comedian is the awesomest hobby in the world: I get to travel to other people’s scientific conventions and tell funny stories and science jokes for an hour, then eat their catered dinners while the real conference attendees fret about poster printing, late-breaking abstracts, and networking. I also troll the vendor fair. But when I present my own research at a meeting, I’m completely humorless, like a Senate subcommittee hearing, or an Adam Sandler movie.

I never thought about how strange this is until earlier this year. I was giving a comedic talk about the public perception of science at the Society for In Vitro Biology Meeting in Tucson, Arizona, alongside Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist, a TED talker, and one of my co-hosts on the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science. Hakeem was giving an example about the importance of communicating science clearly, and he interrupted himself to ask me a question.

“So,” he said, “for example, Adam, do you use humor in scientific presentations?”

“No,” I replied right away. There was an awkward pause. That was not the answer he expected. He had assumed I’d say “yes” and had been planning to build on that “yes” to encourage scientists to be more lighthearted in their interactions.

I felt like a traitor to the basic principles of public speaking—of giving your audience little surprises, of playing to your strengths. Of giving the talk you’d want to attend. And I could tell some were thinking, “Wait, if the science comedian doesn’t use humor in his talks … then I definitely shouldn’t.” I was filled with shame while I pocketed free USB drives at their vendor fair.

The irony is that, from a comedic standpoint, scientific talks are the perfect opportunities for absurdity because it’s so unexpected. In a comedy club, the audience gets bored if your routine doesn’t have a punchline every 15 seconds. But in an hour-long colloquium, the tone is neutral and technical by default, so any slightly funny moment gets amplified.

Comedy is all about contrast. A wacky guy doing a wacky dance is a little weird, but a member of the Queen's Guard doing a wacky dance is hilarious. Stodginess increases the tension, enhancing and enabling the comedy, which is why a university lecture hall with a white-haired professor emeritus droning in a monotone for 45 minutes straight is just begging for a joke.

And that, I think, is why I stopped using humor in presentations. As a more junior scientist, I don’t have the innate contrast that makes a professor emeritus’s silly remarks universally beloved. I can’t tell a joke without worrying about the data the older scientists will think it supplanted. In other words, I’m insecure and scared.

Now that I know what the problem is, I’m working on it. I’m trying to reintroduce charisma into my otherwise straightforward talks, and I encourage everyone to find the audacity to do the same. I want to be bold enough to say, “Look, if someone thinks I’m a worse scientist because I entertained an audience, then that person is a judgmental tool with a narrow view of the role of science in the world.”

It’s not easy, of course, when the judgmental tools are in charge of judging you. But maybe a little comedy—appropriately placed and properly used to clarify the science rather than distract from it—can start to change their minds. As I once heard Dr. Ruth Westheimer say, “A lesson taught with humor is a lesson remembered.” Of course, I would have remembered what she was saying anyway because she was primarily talking about orgasms. But it’s true—humor is almost like a cheat, a trick to engage the brain. The best humor in scientific presentations serves to explain difficult concepts, and at the very least, it helps combat the stereotype of the stuffy, out-of-touch scientist.

Just don’t use humor in grant applications. There’s no need—scientific funding is already a joke.

Thanks, folks! I’ll be here all week! (I don’t have tenure, so that’s as long as I can promise I’ll be anywhere!)

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