The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held their annual meeting, and one of the most popular sessions might have been Brian Malow’s talk on “The Science of Comedy: Communicating with Humor.” It was held twice (one of the few repeated sessions) and there was standing-room-only, packed crowds at each session.
Malow, “the science comedian”, divided his session between entertaining the room – poking fun at scientific quirks – and providing useful tips to help scientists present their work more effectively. Scientific concepts can be serious and dry subjects and judging by the crowds who came to hear Malow speak, many scientists would like to present better to the public.
Malow opened with a few concrete suggestions: “Be yourself. Be human. Be passionate. Be present (with the audience) and be prepared” to be a more effective communicator.
“I’m not trying to make you all comedians,” he assured the audience. Rather, he encouraged scientists in the audience to share their personal stories and passions about their science when they are presenting. Scientists are trained to be analytical about their subject, but when they are presenting to a group, it’s the stories about their science that help audiences relate to that subject.
“Remember why you love your science in the first place and why this field is important to you,“ he said.
Comedy is about finding connections, he explained. Science shouldn’t be presented in a vacuum, but presenters should create the context and let audiences understand why they, too, should be excited about that particular finding or new research.
He illustrated a few comedic techniques – using funny quotes, anecdotes, analogies, and exaggeration – demonstrating how they could be used to explain complex scientific concepts.
It was an international audience and some discussions centered on how to adapt jokes and humor to presentations in other countries. Much of humor involves word play and can be highly dependent on the audience’s fluency with the presenter’s language.
Malow related a very humorous story about his presentation to a scientific group in the UK where the punch line was “we’re staph.” The joke bombed a little until someone in the audience repeated the punch line in a thick English accent (an excellent example where supposedly everyone is speaking the same language!).
One of the ways that Malow prepares for his presentation is by researching words that relate to the group’s science – for example – chemical analysis. As he looks up educational terms, he explores them for potential word play and puns, which he then incorporates into his talk. Another technique is simply adding a funny quote to a presentation to “spice” up the talk. A quote that showcases the science unexpectedly or with a humorous twist, can also add some levity to the talk.
If people ever see the “science comedian” listed on their conference program, I’d encourage you to hear Brian Malow speak. His talk was very entertaining, yet also full of practical suggestions that we can all use to communicate science more effectively.
For more information – www.sciencecomedian.com & on Twitter at @sciencecomedian