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What can scientists learn from stand-up comedy?

I have what could generously be called “a mixed professional background,” or what could ungenerously be called “divided focus verging on negligence”: For the past 2 decades or so, I’ve worked as both a molecular biologist and a stand-up comedian.

I also teach stand-up comedy to undergrads. As I was reviewing the curriculum for an upcoming class, I realized how often speakers giving scientific seminars don’t know—or worse, flagrantly neglect—many of the basic principles of presenter-audience dynamics. And I mean day one kind of stuff. It often seems like no one cares how a scientific presentation is received. For some reason, we think of comedy shows as shows, but we think of scientific seminars as journal articles that, inconveniently, have to be communicated verbally by a living organism.

I know seminars aren’t nightclub acts. But I think scientists at the microphone could benefit from adopting some of the fundamental theatrical principles that make an audience not want to run screaming. With that in mind, here are some basic lessons from the world of stand-up comedy.

  • Practice. Comedians repeat their jokes in their heads repeatedly in order to avoid the ignominy of a cheat sheet. You, as a scientist, probably get a cheat sheet. And you get notes on your slides. And general familiarity with your results. You have no excuse to forget what you’re going to say—but you also have no reason to worry that you will. With this non-forgetting as your foundation, practicing will help you figure out the best way to organize and convey information while keeping the audience engaged.
  • The microphone is not a magic wand. If your mouth is not physically near it, it cannot detect your voice. If you mumble, it cannot turn your voice into a sonorous baritone. If the microphone is attached to a podium, stay at the podium. If the microphone is in front of you, do not speak while your head is turned. If the microphone is pinned to your lapel, point it up toward your face. Before you start your talk, check whether the audience can hear you. Ask, “Can everyone hear me?” If the answer is no, change something.
  • Assume that you do indeed need a microphone, because you do. You can’t “just talk loudly.” People overestimate their own ability to project, almost as if they’re thinking, “Well, if I can hear my own voice just fine, clearly everyone else can.” No, you doofus. Some people in the room may have diminished hearing. Others may be hundreds of feet from you. It’s uncomfortable to strain to listen for the duration of a talk, so make sure your voice travels to where the ears are.
  • Make eye contact with the audience members. If you’re not looking at them and engaging them, you might as well have Siri or Alexa read your slides aloud. Do not make eye contact only with your slides. Do not focus on a random point on the far wall. Do not make eye contact only with the front row. Make repeated, roving eye contact with many people.
  • Work the crowd. In comedy, this means holding a brief, public conversation with a few friendly audience members as “warmup.” Where’d you folks come from tonight? Oh, Richmond? That’s a long drive! You know what I hate about driving? Comedians do this to make their jokes seem more like a natural chat—so that they sound less like prewritten bits and more like clever observations we’re making on the spot. Obviously, a scientist doesn’t need to pause for a sidebar with the couple in the front row from Richmond. But even when delivering serious, formal results, you can still behave like a human being communicating with other human beings. Consider inwardly repeating the mantra, “I have something I want to tell you.” It’s simple, and hopefully it’s accurate. I’ve sat through too many talks that evidently came from the mantra, “I have something I am obligated to tell you,” or worse, “I have something I am obligated to say while in your vicinity.”
  • Though it may appear that comedians leave the stage whenever they’ve run out of things to say, comedy is actually rigidly timed. If you’ve been asked to do 15 minutes, you do 15 minutes. You don’t do five, and you don’t do 30, because every minute you run long imposes on another comedian’s time—not to mention it forces the audience members, your sort-of-prisoners, to sit even longer, all the while wondering when and if you’ll ever stop. Keeping rigidly within the prescribed time frame is just something a responsible comedian does. You’d think that scientists, with our numerical precision, would be even better about this. Yet we all know this is not the case. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at a symposium and the organizer has had to say, “OK, we’re only on our third talk of the day, and we’re already 75 minutes behind. Please, please keep within your allotted time.” Then I look around the room, and I see every speaker thinking the same thing: “I hope every other speaker keeps to their time, because I sure plan to do whatever I want.” Don’t be those people.
  • This may sound intuitive, but here it is: If people stop paying attention, this is bad. You are not a successful speaker simply because you’ve made it to your last slide. It is your job to strive to engage people. Can you imagine if a comedian told jokes robotically, got no laughs, then considered the performance a success because the jokes were in fact conveyed? Delivering information is easy, especially when it’s written in huge text on a slide next to your head. Presenting it in a way that the audience will benefit from? That’s the difficult part, and that’s the amazing part.
  • At the same time, you won’t reach everyone, and that’s OK. No matter how blindingly amazing your talk is, someone will sit there in the front row, fiddling with a phone. Just as a stand-up comic needs to remember that they can’t please the whole audience, you should remember the same. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and a nonzero percentage of scientists gotta fiddle with phones.
  • Let’s return to acoustics. I don’t know why this concept is so mysterious to scientists, but NOT EVERYONE CAN HEAR EVERYTHING SIMPLY BECAUSE SOMEONE IN THE SAME ROOM SAID IT. If a comedian asks someone in the front row what they do for a living, the comedian doesn’t assume the people in the back heard the response. Similarly, when an audience member at a scientific talk asks a question, don’t assume that everyone in the room heard it. When you begin your answer, restate the question so that everyone is on the same page. Otherwise, all the audience gets is your response: “Great question! The answer is no.”
  • Technical difficulties happen. A good comedian has the superpower of being able to set up shop in any environment without extensive need for props or technology. Granted, it’s still a good idea to host comedy in a venue amenable to comedy, not a random closet. But if a mic breaks, or the show starts late, or a snowstorm keeps half the audience home, it’s the comedian’s obligation, within reason, to make their performance happen. Same with science: If something goes wrong, work around it. Grab the chalk. Go with the flow. Deliver your first slide from memory while the laptop connects to the projector. Accept imperfect conditions and do your best.  
  • Most of all, a comedian is constantly thinking about what everyone else in the room must be thinking. Do they hear me? Do they hear each other when they ask questions? Are they following what I’m saying? Do they like it? Is their attention drifting? Words are coming out of the comedian’s mouth, but their brain is wondering what more they could do to enrapture and enthrall. Scientists, on the other hand, seem to think that simply speaking the talk, while standing and facing the opposite direction from the audience, is the accomplishment. It’s not. Think of yourself not just as a deliverer of facts, but as a performer for whom the art of the delivery is crucial to communication. I’m not saying to do it funny. Just do it well.

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