Last month SPEaC held the first of our new quarterly series of workshops: “Improvisation for Scientists.” The goal of the workshop series is to help graduate students and postdocs improve their communication skills through improv-style games and activities. Improv can help make trainees more effective science communicators through emphasizing the importance of listening and engaging with their audience. For example, an improv word association game (e.g. “word toss”) teaches the importance of not only listening but also understanding what was said previously before reacting. Improv can also help make students and postdocs better communicators through activities where participants must relinquish their fears of failure, and not allow their inhibitions to triumph. In improv there is no pressure to be right, or come up with the best idea – the goal is to constantly improve through listening and by encouraging a productive conversation.
Our first workshop was focused on helping our trainees better communicate their own research through improving the delivery of their elevator pitch. For those who are unfamiliar with an elevator pitch, imagine you just entered an elevator to find your boss, who immediately asks you to explain to him/her what you are currently working on before you get to your selected floor. Ready? Go! … I’m sure we can agree that this could be an incredibly stressful situation if you weren’t already well prepared. For scientists, our elevator pitch is typically a one-minute or less sound byte explaining our research and also why you should care. Scientists are taught early in their training to be armed with an elevator pitch, but we rarely get a chance to practice and perfect it. In fact, each time I’ve ever had to give my elevator pitch it has been vastly different. This is because I quickly learned not to give the same elevator pitch to everyone, but rather to slightly modify it each time in an attempt to retain the most interest from my listener. However, without adequate practice, this sort of infrequent trial-and-error system can leave trainees feeling under-confident in their abilities to convey their scientific message effectively to diverse audiences. Improv teaches its participants to be dynamically engaged with their audience, and can be an incredibly helpful tool for our trainees to gain the confidence needed to communicate effectively with all audience types and situations.
Our first workshop began with a simple exercise where we paired up with someone we were not familiar with and recorded each other’s elevator pitches with cell phones. After viewing the playback, many of us realized we were not communicating as we had intended, and that there was some room for improvement. We next began to relax the group with some improv games and activities, which encouraged dynamic participation, active listening, and quick thinking (without fear or judgement). We finished the workshop by repeating the same elevator pitch video exercise. This time each elevator pitch was improved, simply by virtue of the improv games – even without critiques and revisions to the pitch content itself! Our attendees noticed the importance of letting go of their fears and inhibitions, and especially the necessity of knowing and engaging with their audience. They learned that much of communication is more than what you say, and rather how you say it and how the information is received.
We are very pleased with the success of our first workshop, and are excited to announce that we will hold the next installment in October 2016. This second “Improvisation for Scientists” workshop will aim to help our trainees to communicate more confidently with lay audiences by emphasizing communication while eliminating scientific jargon. We hope our workshop series will provide a safe and fun environment where our trainees can hone their communication skills. These newly acquired skills can enable them to be more successful for future career prospects, both in- and outside the lab, as well as in sharing their passion for science and research with all audiences.
We look forward to seeing you at our next workshop. However, in the interim we encourage you to join SPEaC and practice engaging with your audience, and refining your communication skills through any of our many outreach events or participating in our “Ask a Scientist” program.
Editor: Filipa Ferreira