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.



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).

Another great part was having to read a page from the Doctor Seuss story “Fox in Socks” aloud. We tried emphasising the consonants and then the vowels. We even mouthed the words without sound, and wow – that really makes you notice how much (or how little) your mouth moves when you speak. Apparently Australians are particularly bad at not opening or moving their mouths very much when we speak!

Some other tips Justene had for preparing for a talk or presentation were:

  • If you can, find somewhere private to warm up your body (shoulder rolls/ankle rolls etc.), to warm up your face (scrunch it up and then relax it or mouth the first few lines of your talk), and finally your voice (hum a tune).
  • Take a few slow deep breaths into your belly before you begin to speak.
  • “Acknowledge the room”. Now this was more about taking in the size of the room you’re in. So look at the back wall and take in all the space in the room. This will help you to automatically project your voice to fill the space, instead of only talking to the front row (or your shoes).
  • Too nervous to make eye contact? Look at their ears instead! Most people can’t tell.
  • And if you forget a word or a sentence in your talk, just take a slow breathe and move on. It happens to everyone.

But my favourite part of the class was Justene telling us that feeling nervous or scared is utterly normal and to be expected. No, it isn’t a comfortable feeling by any standards. But that energy can help you give a better, and more interesting presentation.

So thank you Justene Knight for the brilliant class. I never would have through that such simple things like posture, tension in your body, or warming up the muscles in your face could actually change the sound and reach of your voice. And for anyone wondering if they should give voice training a go – yes do!

Stretching Communication Boundaries

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.