Improv. and Science. The odd couple… or a match made in heaven?

In a royally decorated room of the Science Exchange in Adelaide (complete with red carpet, wood panelling and throne-like chairs in the corner), there we awkwardly stood,  30 people in a circle, nervous and fidgeting. We were ready to brave Improv!

This winter, the Royal Institute of Australia (RiAUS) hosted an Improv night specifically geared towards helping scientists, scientists-in-the-making, and other communicators improve their communication skills by diving into a bit of Improvisation.

Dain and Jarred, from OnTheFly Improv ( ran the session. They cracked jokes, moved us around and generally reminded us to “keep breathing”. They were wonderful. With my heightened nervous senses, our two-hour session flew by. There were games, mind tricks, advice on stance – all things to could help us to overcome our natural reluctance to blurt out whatever comes first to mind, and instead to trust ourselves. Even in a simple word association game, it was hard not to second guess your answer!

Dain and Jarred also gave us some very practical advice for presenting

To start if you’re getting nervous beforehand but can’t get up to do any physical moves (such as stretching, yawning etc) to help calm you down, then you can try playing the word association game using images in your head. You start by picturing anything and then picture whatever comes to mind when you see that image. E.g. clouds > cotton wool > eggs > seashells etc. There are no wrong answers, and concentrating hard on these images instead of your nerves can be a big help.

If you have more than 10 minutes for your presentation, give this a try:

For the first minute – Walk on, pick a spot (not directly in front of the screen) and plant your feet (legs shoulder width apart). You want to stand in “open stance”. This means arms by your sides, elbows slightly bent and open palms facing forwards. You want to stay this way for the whole first minute (yes it can feel like a really long time!) as you introduce yourself. Tell the audience a bit about yourself – what you’re interested in, any hobbies you have etc. This “humanises” you to the audience and makes a steady, friendly and open first impression.

After the first minute, slow yourself down, take a deep breath, SMILE, and start your presentation proper. Begin by telling them an outline of what you’re going to tell them, this way your audience will understand the bigger picture of your presentation. You can move around a little after your first minute, but try to pick a new spot and stick with it for a while – don’t let it turn into pacing back and forth. You also want to make lots of eye contact with the audience, but if this would send your nerves sky-high you can try picking spots above people’s heads to look at, or even simply looking at people’s foreheads instead of directly into their eyes. They won’t be able to tell.

If you have less than 10 minutes for your presentation:

Then you may not have one whole minute to spend introducing yourself. But you can still pick your first spot, stand in “open stance”, take a deep breath and smile. THEN begin your presentation. 

With regards to making mistakes, Dain and Jarred were very reassuring. They told us to try and cut yourself some slack. They said, “Lower your personal expectations for your delivery to only 95%. You can still demand 100% of yourself for content, but try to forgive yourself a little when it comes to your presentation. Otherwise, if you do make a mistake, you’ll get flustered or mad and let it steamroll in more mistakes.”

It was an exhilarating evening. We all stepped out of our comfort zones, tried to loosen up a bit and gave it a go. I would wholeheartedly recommend Improv to anyone wanting to be able to have a bit more fun with their science communication, be it presentations, interviews or even the 1-minute lift spiel.You can read about another article on the value of improvisation in science

You can also read about a past article on the value of improvisation in science here.


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