Why an Acting Approach to Your Science Talk

Hey there. If you got here through Google or Yahoo or whatever that Microsoft thing is…. you probably ALSO encountered a bunch of websites written by well-meaning advisors that gave you great (and by great I actually mean useless) advice for your science talk.

Photo of bad advice kiosk from flickr Creative Commons.
Bad Advice Kiosk from Smoobs on flickr.

I have written a screenplay below to illustrate my compassion for you and my understanding for just how great useless that advice is. (By the way the stage direction (aside) means that the actor delivers the line in a way that implies that he is thinking the line, not actually saying it out loud).

The Scientist and the Imposter

(A swell of music. Interior: A grey room. A clearly awesome in every way early career scientist sweeps her perfect hair off her perfect brow. It is obvious that behind the perfect brow is the brain of a genius).

Early Career Scientist:
Computer, please locate information. How to deliver a great science talk.

Working. File Found. Working. Complete.

(A holographic image appears. It is the Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver. It is obvious he is distracted, would rather die than return dissertation comments on schedule, and thinks of undergraduate as cockroaches. His less-than-perfect brow obfuscates what might be genius, but what might also be strings of words put together to *seem* like genius).

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
Number 1: Don’t be nervous.

Early Career Scientist:
OK great. (Concentrates real hard. Makes a funny face) (Aside) This…..is……not……working.

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
Number 2: Don’t move around too much….Or not Enough.

Early Career Scientist:
Um. Okay. How do I know how much is too much or not enough?

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
(Silence, then) You should know this stuff by now…

Early Career Scientist:
Oh I do. I do . Thank you for reminding me. Thanks Really.

(She paces around frantically then stands still like a robot).

Early Career Scientist:
(aside) I must be the only one who can’t figure this out. (defeated sigh)

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
Number 3: Don’t talk with your hands and be sure to gesture occasionally to keep the attention of your audience.

Early Career Scientist:
How do I both avoid talking with my hands AND make make gestures to keep my audience’s attention?

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You’re super-smart, or at least that’s what I was told.

Early Career Scientist:
Thanks for your help? (Aside) I am a total imposter. I’m not sure I even deserve this post-doc. I am so not super-smart. I wonder how long before someone figures it out.

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
Number 4: Don’t read your power-point slides. In fact, don’t even look at the screen.

Early Career Scientist:
OK. Great Advice. Thank you. You are the best adviser ever. (Aside) How do I know what to say next if I can’t look at my slides? How will I even know I am on the right slide? How can I use the laser pointer without looking at the screen? I must be an idiot. My work is totally unimportant and terrible. I should probably give up and go into retail. Maybe they’ll send me to jail for posing as a competent scientist.

Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver:
Make sure you take the stage and show your confidence.

Early Career Scientist:
OK. That should be easy (halfheartedly punches fist in the air). (Aside) OK, I have no idea how to be confident in this situation. There’s the proof that I have no right to be a scientist. I am going to sabotage myself by writing my talk at the last minute, and delivering it in a voice so soft no one can hear hear me. I’ll pretend the audience isn’t there by not looking at them. In fact I’ll pretend I’m not even there…. In fact, maybe I won’t even go. I’ll just disappear ….. and no one will ever know what became of me….

(Enter the funniest, most useful, supportive, and empathetic science communication coach in the whole world. She wears a super-flattering super hero costume and she carries a bow and arrow. She is utterly enchanting in her beauty, her intelligence is obvious, and she could clearly single-handedly wrestle every Useless Science Talk Advice Giver to the ground. Unfortunately, She also trips on the way to comfort early career Scientist…)

I think you’re awesome. I can teach you how to do a science talk.

Early Career Scientist:
You mean…..I don’t have to give up my career in science?

No. In my lab, you will learn by doing. You need only commit to the process.  You will start by waxing my car. Wax on…Wax off…

(Jenifer smacks Useless Science Talk Advice Giver off the planet)

Comic drawing of superhero knocking down bad science presenter
Superhero defeats Useless Science Talk Advice-Giver

Next Week: The Training Sequence. In which we learn how early career scientist commits to the process (even the weird stuff) and KILLS IT at her next conference.



Here’s the deal. No matter how smart you are (and you are really smart)….

No matter how important your work is (And it is really important)…

No matter how much you deserve to be where you are today (and you do deserve it)…

You cannot learn how to deliver a science talk from a book, article, or lecture. You just can’t. No one can. The only way to learn how to do something is by doing it.

Think about the stuff you actually do in your lab. Someone actually sat down with you and showed you how to (for example) prepare a slide. And then (if they were any good at all) they watched you and coached you until you could do it. You would never expect your lab assistants to read an article about sequencing DNA and then just be able to do it.

Here’s another analogy:  I once read an article about how to improve my tennis game. I have never played tennis before. Thus, while the article was fascinating (and also the only thing available to read in my dentist’s waiting room since I let my phone die), I had no expectation that I would be able to play tennis just because I read some advice about improving my game.

And yet, that’s what we expect when we expect you to be able to deliver a science talk with no experience, coaching or practice. Reading about what not to do or what to do will not help. You actually have to DO.

That’s why Acting for Scientists is different (and delivers better results). Actor training is about doing! (In fact, we call our classrooms labs to underline the doing nature of our work). You learn to act by actually doing it. You learn how to move not too much and not too little through a process of doing, observing, and doing again. We acting coaches (the good ones anyway) have learned to create a safe space for actors to learn through doing without throwing them into paroxysms of impostor syndrome every time they fail.

In fact, failure is part of the process. You can’t give a good science talk until you have learned by giving many, many bad science talks. I imagine that you would prefer to give these many, many bad science talks NOT in front of your colleagues. Actors, too would rather give their bad performances not in front of audiences. That’s why we have rehearsal.

So here’s why Acting for Scientists: Your science talks are a type of performance. To learn how to perform you must do performance. You need a safe space and process to do performance badly before you can do performance well. As your acting coach, I will share my process and help you create a safe space.  I won’t just tell you what to do or what not to do.  I will give you the tools you need to do it with confidence!

So, I sense the force is strong with you. Are you ready for your training Padowan?


Send me an email with feedback.  Share your thoughts and ideas about science talks, presentation and science communication!  I will reply to each and every one of you.

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