“Improv for Scientists” Workshop Recap

Last week SPEaC held the second installment in our series of workshops: “Improvisation for Scientists”. This workshop series aims to help graduate students and postdocs improve their communication skills through fun and interactive improv-style games and activities. The focus of this workshop was to help our trainees recognize and eliminate complex scientific jargon and instead communicate in relatable stories and analogies.

Through this workshop we hoped to demonstrate to our trainees that improvisation techniques can help them become more effective communicators in a multitude of ways. For example:

  • Improv can help you become more aware and engaged with your audience by teaching you that you need to pay attention to their needs and not to be so concerned with yourself.
  • Improv also teaches you to make it personal. Trainees quickly learned that the most important aspect of communication is not being precise, or hammering in correct and unbiased facts, but rather connecting with their audience on a human level. If you are relatable to your audience, then the audience will care about you and will be more receptive to your message.
  • Improv teaches you to keep it simple. The best way to lose the audience is to come across as cold or condescending by overusing complex technical jargon. Instead, eliminating jargon, communicating in analogies, and using relatable experiences will help you connect better with your audience and better distill your message.

Since the workshop focused on helping trainees recognize and eliminate jargon, we played a variation of an improv game, “Translate Gibberish.” In our variation, each player said a scientific or technical word (e.g. the “gibberish”) to another player, who had to translate the word for the group into more simple terms. If the player did not understand the gibberish word, it was translated as “banana!” This fun exercise helped our trainees realize that scientific words can be considered jargon, even to other PhD-level scientists, and also helped them practice translating complex scientific terms into something that is simpler and easier to understand.

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After our trainees recognized how difficult it can be to translate complex ideas into more general terms, we helped them communicate more effectively. We did this by playing some improv games that showed the value of using descriptive words, analogies, and narration when communicating. For example, we concluded this workshop with a variation of the improv game “Action Color Emotion.” In this exercise our trainees answered a prompt by telling a story (e.g. “Tell me what the funniest thing that’s happened to you in lab recently is”). During their storytelling the other trainees in the group could interject and ask them to fill their story with more “action” (e.g. narrative), “color” (e.g. descriptors), or “emotion” in order to make it more engaging. This exercise helped our trainees recognize that communication is easier when you make it more personal and relatable.

Through this workshop we helped our graduate student and postdoc trainees learn the benefits of engaging with their audience and also how best to adapt their communication style to convey their message. We are thrilled with the success of our “Improvisation for Scientists” workshops, and hope to see many more trainees at the next installment in early Spring 2017! In the meantime, keep practicing your science communication by attending any of SPEaC’s outreach events or participating in our “Ask a Scientist” program.

Editor: Anirudh Sethi

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