Improv for scientific communication with Aniek Ivens

Children get improv, naturally

How I wish I understood you, but I have no idea what you are talking about. You seem friendly and animated and clearly love your research, but what is your question? Why do you like this figure so much? What is important? How does your work fit with what has gone before? How does it fit with what I already know? Oh, right, you don’t know what I know any more than I know what you know, so how do we ever move forward?

Steve Pinker calls this the curse of knowledge. Alan Alda asks you why he’s making this face if he understands you. Figure this one out and not only will you communicate your work more effectively, but you might also learn to ask bigger questions and answer them more ingeniously because you have learned to communicate across boundaries.

It is hard to communicate because the details are things you think about all the time. How could anyone not know them? The broader the audience, the deeper the chasm. National meetings may seem to be the most challenging of all because the audiences are so varied. However you should also be talking about your research with people who do not share your background at all, which is another set of skills. If we did this better, maybe our governments would get the importance of investing more in research.

Learning to bridge to others may best be done with tangential exercises. Learn to explain something you are not invested in, then apply those same skills to your science. This is sort of like cross training. The fastest runners don’t get that way just by running, do they? Or maybe a better analogy would be a team sport where you have to figure out the actions of others, not just your own. This is key.

Pay attention to your audience. Pay exquisite attention to your audience. Talking is not communicating, after all. Communicating is a dance of talking and listening, building your story according to what your audience is getting. Know your audience is a start.
Improv? Isn’t that where you keep a blank mind and say or do something that follows only from what another participant said before? Isn’t it where you get to put others in embarrassing positions, setting them up for a story that cannot easily be continued? No! Actually in improv the actors try to set each other up to shine, something that requires exquisite between actor connections. Improv in front of an audience might seem like a party that you don’t get to attend, only watch. But of course the whole point of improv is an intimate connection to the audience, almost as if they were another actor. How the script goes depends on the audience reactions in the best cases.

We were fortunate enough to have Aniek Ivens teach us in a too-short workshop an introduction to improv for science communication. We started with learning each other’s names. Besides Aniek, there were 14 of us, a challenging number to learn quickly. We all got in a group and chose an adjective and an action to attach to our first names. Aniek started as anxious Aniek who showed us clawed hands in front of her. We had juggling Jenna, miming juggling, ecstatic Erica who jumped up spreading her arms up. We had yucky Yunji who made a face and artistic Allison, who air painted. We had fast Freddie, extended Ethan, and terrible Tony. We went around the circle a few times saying our names and showing our actions. Then we all did each person’s action, passing around the circle. Would this work in class? I might give it a try. After all, this was an easier way to learn the names than what Aniek would call dry names, without the accompanying adjective and gesture.

Clearly we still had a lot of loosening up to do and I could see Aniek was mentally sorting through hundreds of possibilities. She chose a circle game in which we clapped our shoulder on one side counting to six, then arced our arm over our head for seven. After a few rounds of this, she added a twist. It was that the direction could reverse if we simply used the other arm to slap the other shoulder. And we still had to keep track of the different gesture for seven. It sounds easy, but speed it up and we made mistakes, missing the seven, or failing to detect a change of direction indicated by our neighbor. It got fun.

Then Aniek broke us into two circles. If we made a mistake we had to run to the other circle. No one else could tell us to go. We had to self-police. I suppose we could always use more self-policing and less other policing. This got crazy and fun. We could hardly stop laughing. Maybe the point of it was to loosen us up and to make us comfortable with mistakes.

We did some other things before we got to explain stuff to each other. All of it had to do with communicating, I think. Here is one that was intense. We stood opposite another person. One of us was the leader. That person had to do movements that the other had to mirror so exactly that a third person could not identify the leader. This meant we had to move slowly and look the other person in the eyes continuously. I still remember channeling Aileen’s every movement as she moved slowly and carefully. It helps in doing this to follow some kind of pattern. Clearly Aileen had some familiarity with ballet moves, but I did not, just as she did not know yoga moves I fell back on when I was the leader. I like to think we were pretty good at slow, symmetrical moves that were not too hard to match. But what did this have to do with either improv, or communicating science?

I guess it isn’t too hard to figure out that the connection has to do with exquisite communication. You can’t follow a predetermined script if your audience doesn’t follow you. How can you tell if you are actually communicating the ideas you care about? Only by having a great connection to your listener. I suppose you get better as you do this at guessing what your listener gets so that you get better with even a huge audience in a dark auditorium. This exercise was mesmerizing, even though we weren’t using it the way others have here, here , here and here.

The next exercise we did was lighter. Someone began with a word and around the circle the story grew, each person adding a word to the previous one to tell a story. Aniek reminded us a story begins with a scene, has a problem, then has a resolution to a problem. Your science stories should be the same. She also reminded us to keep a blank mind, so we could best respond to what the person before us said. I could say a lot about the power of a blank mind, open to discovery. If you really listen to what your audience is saying, you may begin to avoid the curse of knowledge.

Now that we were all loosened up, comfortable with making mistakes, in touch with our blank minds and the supremacy of the audience, we were ready to do some activities that got really close to actually explaining our science. Aniek told us we had to do a kind of role playing, explaining a modern device to 15th century people. This required us to imagine our audience and their world. It made us think about the world they knew as different from the world we know. This is an important skill for explaining to any audience, particularly those with less of a science background.

Finally we got to the actual science part, which was just as interesting as the rest. I wonder how we would have done if we hadn’t gone through the earlier exercises. Frankly, I believe they made us much more in touch with the goals of science communication, actual understanding of what our partners understood and when we needed to back track. As before, we each took a turn being actor and recipient. The actor told the recipient what role they should take. I paired with Tony and he wanted me to be a prospective graduate student since he is starting a new lab. When my turn came, I wanted him to be a recalcitrant editor that keeps rejecting my papers without review. One person worked through a two-minute presentation, then a 1 minute, a 30 second, and finally a 15 second spiel. After the two-minute one, we answered questions about what we understood.

It was transformative. If ever I felt I had time to ramble in two minutes, it was after having said essentially the same thing in 15 seconds. I think it not only helped me communicate better, but also helped me understand what my real message was. It helped me think about where the weaknesses were also.

We wrapped up with some group discussion and then one last exercise. We got back in the main circle, juggling Jenna, artistic Irene, angry Aileen, basic Brandon, and all the rest. Then we started with the one word thing but instead of going around the circle, the person that said one word pointed to the next speaker. When we felt the idea was complete, we indicated it with all yelling out ‘right on!’ These were sort of like proverbs. We did a bunch of them, then ended the fabulous 100 minutes with applause for amazing Aniek.

Can I keep everything I learned that afternoon? Will I actually find and take an improv class?Or I could look for TJ and Dave, or, according to Aniek again, read Jagodowski or  Keith Johnstone,

But really, I hope I get to work with Aniek again. If you want to, here is her contact:
Or you could try your local improv groups, or Alan Alda:  or lots of other publicity on the role of improv in communicating science, like this.

So, have fun, pay intense attention to your audience, help everyone shine, and figure out what your big ideas are and what the evidence for them is.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Communication, Creativity, Science writing for the public, Scientific meetings, Talks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Improv for scientific communication with Aniek Ivens

  1. Pingback: Friday links: worst field experience, social media ecologists vs. actual ecologists, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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