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 (http://www.ontheflyimpro.com) 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

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Discovering Voice Training

Imagine being told to make gargoyle faces, to hum using different parts of your body, and to read Doctor Seuss tongue twisters aloud in a big empty room. This was my introduction to voice training.

The class was run by Ms Justene Knight, a Senior Consultant: Organisational Development, Human Resources at the University of South Australia. Standing before us she looked so comfortable and confident in her own body and voice – so it didn’t surprise me to learn that she had previously been an Actor.

We began by trying to pay more attention to our  bodies as we stood there. With two hands on our bellies we practised breathing into our stomachs instead of into our chests (where people normally tend to breathe from). To find tension in our bodies we swung arms, rolled ankles and shook our legs. Justene got us noticing how different subtle postures could shorten our breath. Things like standing on your toes, lifting your shoulders or even curling your toes up can impact how grounded you feel and how your breath comes out.

And try this for an exercise! To help shift your voice from the back of your throat or up in your head – Pinch your nose closed and say,

“Hello, my name is _______ and I do _____________ for work.” 

I bet you sounded pretty funny huh? Now try to do it and sound completely normal! No nasal sounding words at all ( I can get some words but not others).

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Stretching Communication Boundaries

http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7481-121a

This article titled “Communication: Spontaneous Scientists” is from the Naturejobs blog, and it welcomes improvisation to science communication. The article discusses techniques to develop the capacity to adapt during a presentation or a conversation, in addition to how we can even be a little bit theatrical or personable when attempting to communicate. I found this whole idea just so exciting!

During my undergraduate science degree, presentations were always a matter of: making your slides look professional, ensuring you defend your research strongly enough and remaining composed and serious in front of your audience. For many of my classmates at the time, standing up and speaking even just in front of the class was a terrifying, or at the very least, uncomfortable experience.

Now in my PhD research I am still being guided towards keeping my presentations serious, with lots of tables and references. Once I was even told to put more words on my slides, as I was speaking more than what was up on the screen.

I do understand that to be taken seriously by other scientists we need to keep within some traditional boundaries, especially for those of us relatively new to the world of research and publishing scientific journal articles. But I still find it frustrating that your research could be exemplary or ground-breaking, but present that research with too colourful slides or too enthusiastic a manner and you would not be taken seriously.

The article above does refer to presenting research to non-scientific audiences. I guess I am just looking forward to a time when I can push some of these presentation boundaries myself, particularly in an academic setting.

The Potential of Posture.

I watched this TEDtalk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy a little while ago and the idea of “power posing” has definitely stuck with me.

Before meetings I find myself leaning back in my chair, propping my feet up on my desk and linking my hands behind my head. Okay truthfully I only do this when alone in my shared office – but when I do, it feels like an ultimate expression of confidence.

Before my recent Confirmation of Candidature presentation, I hid in the bathroom beforehand and held the ‘Superman pose’ – feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips, chest pushed out and head held high. This research recommends holding a “power pose” like this for two minutes for full effect. And I have to say… I felt really strong and comfortable and in-control.

So if you need a little extra confidence, watch this brilliant TEDTalk and give a “power pose” a go.