Improv for Scientists

Look someone in the eye and breath in.

Walk around the room and explore your surroundings. Touch and feel.

Form the letter P without speaking.

Com Sci

These are not the activities you’d expect from a Communicating Science Workshop. Of the thirty of us in the seminar, the majority of us expected a lecture on communication and came with a notebook in hand. The event was advertised as an interactive workshop (I just re-read the email) but the idea that communicating science could be a ‘fun’ experience seemed like a ruse.

As soon as Patty was introduced and started the seminar we knew we were in for a unique experience.  Have you ever met an actor who claims to be an introvert?? Prof. Patty Raun, the Director of the School of Performing Arts, asked a few questions of the group before asking us to roam around the empty ballroom – the event took place at the Inn at Virginia Tech. Everyone was hesitant at the start of the program but 2 concerns regarding communicating science came to the forefront: 1) how to not sound condescending when speaking about research and 2) how to keep people engaged when discussing research.

Patty was empathetic to our experiences and shared her passion for helping those in technical fields express their ideas.  She gained traction with the audience when she shared that she came from a technical family and was viewed as the black-sheep for being an actor. She had been (I inferred) in situations, starting as child, where beautiful science could not be shared due to communication issues causing both parties frustration. With this background, I could embrace Patty and her beliefs that scientists and those in technical fields have a “responsibility to share the meaning and implications of their work, and that an engaged public encourages sound public decision-making.”


With this understanding, everyone got up and started walking around the room. First we were instructed to look each person in the eye. After several minutes we were told, breath in when you make eye contact, shake hands and breath in after eye contact, add a salutation. The next game was to find a partner and ask about their breakfast. After five minutes of talking we were told to stand back-to-back with our partner and describe what they were wearing and also what they had for breakfast. As the activities continued everyone seemed more open and upbeat. We were not communicating science but we were becoming friends, comfortable with each other. Many of the workshop activities were inspired and borrowed from the Alan Alda for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Here Alan Alda is discussing his work just days after this workshop.

The major take home message from the workshop was that body language matters. Patty helped us understand this by asking us to reflect on our internal feelings several times throughout the workshop. After 1.5 hrs of fun and games, it was clear that the workshop was about communication in general and not just about communicating science; yet, the word science likely led many of us to sign up for the workshop. –One caveat, the workshop was clearly about communicating American social norms. I think that a discussion could/should be conducted on the type of norms and diversity that goes into ‘communicating science’ and scientific collaboration.  —  Over the course of the workshop we worked on eye contact, observation and facial expression but the biggest challenge was the I am activity. Each person had to talk for 3 minutes and could only use sentences that started with”I am….” In my group (5 people) everyone hit a roadblock before time was up. Talking for so long with a prescribed sentence structure was draining.  When we came back together as a large group, Patty asked us about our experiences. Someone brought up that they were not sure what to share and how personal they should get. Another team found a theme and responses were related to this core subject.

In my three minutes, I touched on how the improv activities related to an earlier discussion I had on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment. The assessment, which I took from my IGEP class, came to mind because I kept wanting to ask my group members questions during their monologues. My assessment results highlighted my constant question asking and a separate Strengths Assessment said my questions are usually aimed at collecting facts and ideas.  I found that the non-verbal exercises of the workshop helped me to see the results of these two assessments in action.  The relationship between these three activities came to mind several days after the workshop when I read an article entitled “Know Thy Selfie.”   The article, which you should most certainly read, discussed taking pictures of oneself with a front facing smartphone camera (a selfie) and how there is depth and insight in this seemingly narcissistic activity. I liked the article because it showed that self-reflection can be enabled by technology.

The workshop was not only fun in its own right but it made the following cocktail hour much more enjoyable because I had new friends to talk to and learn from.

Enjoy this cartoon from Nature:



2 thoughts on “Improv for Scientists

  1. Here are a couple more articles on communicating science (“…universities need to do a much better job at training scientists to communicate and become storytellers…”)

    and the science communications vis-a-vis social media:

    Great post, Marjorie.

  2. Marjorie, thanks so much for writing such a thoughtful and detailed post all about the “communicating science” workshop! I’m so glad we could capture a student perspective on the workshop. I agree, it gave the reception a completely different tone and lowered the barriers for students from different programs to talk to each other about interdisciplinary research, graduate life, and a range of other topics!

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