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

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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A Guest Lecture on Urban Agriculture

Last week I gave my first ever guest lecture for a UniSA course called “Environment: A Human Perspective”. There were about 50-60 first year students present and my nerves came on strong at the beginning. But I made it through, and listening back I think I managed to get my passion and enthusiasm for urban agriculture across to the students –  I even made them laugh couple of times!… intentionally, of course.

Part #1 of the lecture covered the basics of urban agriculture (UA), some of its differences around the world and how common it is in South Australia.

In Part #2 (which is still being edited) I describe how there is more to UA than simply the productive side (how much food people can grow) – there is also a strong social value side. In the middle there’s some interaction where I ask the students what it takes to grow food from start to finish, and how this in turn influences your research design.

I mention both my honours research on the social reaction of people to aquaponics, in addition to how some of the local councils react to the idea of aquaponics. And finished up with a little on my PhD research on the productive capacity and social value of UA via the Edible Gardens Project.

I know there are a couple a little rough moments in here. But I would still love to get any feedback you may have.

Enjoy!
Georgia the Urban Ag. Scientist

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

Because science is based upon the process of critical evaluation, pointing out flaws and faults in arguments and ideas, can become second nature. But this sometimes aggressive process can be taken as un-neccessarily critical, arrogant and just plain mean when seen by the general public. Olson warns scientists to be careful of “rising above” (acting superior, arrogant or smarter-than) when communicating with people from a non-scientific background.

From previous chapters we already know there’s substance (what you say) and there’s style (the way you say it). Now would be nice to think that the substance of an idea, process or project, is what people pay attention to. Yet as discussed by both Randy Olson and Richard Lanham, when it comes to large public venues with broad audiences (or any time when the amount of information being communicated reaches excessive levels) then people’s minds make a shift from substance to style.

It becomes easier to evaluate the presenter, then to evaluate the information they’re sharing.

So how does Olson recommend you can become more likeable?

  1. First impressions count. People can form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Try to appear friendly, calm and organised (neat).
  2. Even if someone disagrees with something you say, don’t rise above. Stay grounded, calm and try to understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be dismissive.
  3. Shift from using only your brain to using humour, emotion and passion. If you can work “fun” in there too, then you’re golden.

Does being likeable mean you cannot use critical thinking? No, not at all. It means you can use both positivity (a form of spontaneity or creativity) and THEN negativity (critical thinking).

Options for interviews:

One opportunity for using both positivity and negativity which Olson gives is during an interview. When asked a question, he says you can partition your answers, for example by beginning with a range of creative possibilities and then imposing some discipline by moving on to, “But a lot of evidence points to the most logical explanation of ….”. This shifting back and forth provides your interview with much more interest than simply sticking to the pure logical results the entire time.

My own recent attempts at likability

By launching my Edible Gardens project, I have been doing most of the promotion myself. Often I have only a few minutes to get explain my project and make a good impression. So thank goodness for all my hospitality experience with waitressing, bartending etc. I am more than comfortable introducing myself, smiling and chatting to new people.

But it’s not just my hospitality experience making the difference – I am working hard at being likeable.

Lots of smiling, nodding when people talk, taking in their perspectives and ideas or concerns, learning a bit about their circumstances to see whether or not my project is right for them – as much as learning whether they are right for my project.

By making a social effort and focussing on the mutual benefits, I am getting through to most of the people I meet, and have had many project volunteers.


Want to read all the brilliant stories and details of, “Don’t be such a scientist” for yourself? You can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Confronting the 3 Minute Thesis

I finally sat down after the first School of NBE round of the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) and thought, “Well I tried but I don’t think I’m getting through.”

This was because I have never been so overwhelmingly nervous during a presentation ever before in my life. At one point I even remember thinking, “If I just lie down right here on the ground… will everyone just go away and leave me alone?”

So thank goodness I did better than I thought I did.

The 3MT was developed by the University of Queensland and has been running since 2008. It’s a deceptively simple concept:

Can you take your 4 (or 5 or 6 or even 7 years!) of PhD research and explain it to a non-expert audience in under 3 minutes? Oh and you’re only allowed one slide behind you, with no moving parts or sounds. Sounds like a reasonable challenge yes?

In that first school round I came second (which I was not expecting at all).

Three weeks later in the Division round, the presentations were part of an all day Division Information Day. This means it was held in a large sunken lecture room with more than 100 academics coming and going throughout the day.

Again I was very nervous. But thank goodness I was still slightly less nervous than the last time. I tried to set myself up to succeed by leaving the room about three presentations before my own, and using some of the warm ups and voice exercises I learnt in voice training. By the time I returned to the lecture hall – it was time for me to present.

As I was slightly calmer I was able to use my hands to gesture more, I was able to smile more and even move around a little. However I still stumbled on some words and when trying to move on to the next part or my talk.

The others who were also presenting did mostly really well. Everyone stayed within the three minute mark. Some had brilliant voice projection, and some were a little hard to hear in this large padded room. Most of them moved around while they spoke, and used hand gestures to great effect.

What I took away from this was that not only should you practice a lot, but you really should try to practice in front of as many people as you can muster. With only three minutes to present, you don’t have any time to relax into your talk once you get going. You need to start already relaxed.

For anyone interested in watching the 3MT Final Round for the University of South Australia, it’s on Wednesday the 17th of August from 10-12 at the City West Campus. Good luck to all the presenters!


And does has anyone had a similar experience with the 3MT? Or do you have any ideas or suggestions for how to begin a talk calm, instead of having to calm down during your talk? Let me know!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 3

Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…

Part 3: Don’t be such a poor storyteller

By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story

You begin with your raw material. For scientists this is your data, results, interviews, conclusions or realisations (admit it – there’s a lot). It may be in a jumble, or you may have it in the standard scientific structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Although that structure is perfect for the scientific world, it isn’t great for anyone else.

While working on his film, “Flock of Dodos”, Olson figured out that to go forwards with all of his raw material – he would have to go back to one of the simplest stories there is: there’s a man, a journey, a damsel, a dragon and a larger evil in the land. Then all of his raw material suddenly worked together like magic.

The trouble is, the simplicity of a good story is both its greatest strength in engaging people, but is also the biggest sticking point for those who cannot (or will not) suspend disbelief, and believe in the story they’re told.

Olson tells of his trouble when showing some of his films to scientists, how they simply could not stop themselves from constantly questioning what was occurring – “Could that really happen?” or, “I don’t think that detail is correct”. Olson goes so far as to call them the “designated drivers” of the storytelling audience, while everyone else sits there drinking in the wonder of the story.

I find this habit of constantly looking for flaws in everything a little inflexible. Yes, stories can be simple and tend to follow patterns we already know. But they’re not just for children. Most of us became scientists because we never quite lost our childlike fascination with the world. Scientific research begins with a simple curiosity that drives us to ask, “Why…?”. So why on earth can’t we accept the power and necessity of a good story sometimes?

The book then shifts to the challenge of Accuracy vs. Boredom. Scientists care most about how accurate something is. Almost everyone else cares slightly more about whether they’re bored or not. Olson goes so far as to call this, “The fundamental dilemma facing the world of science today”.

One way to overcome boredom is by introducing  a source of tension or conflict. Something to think around or overcome. By denying any challenges made to science, scientists are missing out on a potential opportunity where they could fight the source of conflict and triumph!

Olson winds up this chapter by unreservedly championing the fact that,

“Being concise” is not the same as “dumbing down”.

Yes, you will have to work harder to get down to the relatable true essence of what your research is about. But surely you will become more confident and comfortable in your own understanding, and your ability to share what you do. So see if you can’t weave a little storyline through your work the next time you have to talk to those outside the academic sphere.


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Happy Reading!

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!

Fresh Science at the Pub

Last Wednesday night, I attended the FreshScience talks at the Lion Hotel in North Adelaide. I was there to hear from all the South Australian based young researchers who had just been through two days of media and public communications training, and were now going to give a casual but short talk on their research in a pub setting.

The night was hosted by Sarah Brooker – Managing Director of ‘Science in Public’ , “We believe that the media have an appetite for science”. The presenting researchers were kept on their toes and didn’t even know which order they were to speak in. To make the time limit extra obvious, each speaker with given a birthday sparkler. They were to introduce themselves, have the sparkler lit, and then had until the fire ran out to tell the audience all about their work.

They did brilliantly. Most of the young researchers didn’t even seem to need their full sparkler time. They told us the basics of their work, and then would look down, surprised that the sparkler was still going and so they could tell us more. Much of what they said after their first spiel was more about the impact and importance of their work – how it was going to help people of change things. Often it was the most interesting part!

After their talk, each speaker was asked several questions by both Sarah Brooker and the audience. For some of the speakers, the answers merely expanded on what they had already outlined for us. But for a few, the questions and answer time provided a much clearer picture of what their work was about.

The topics varied considerably. We heard about a fascinating array of research. There was everything from using thermal maps of Mars to find liquid water underground, to phyto-absorbtion and -restoration of mining sites using acacia, to the impacts of greater fish oil consumption in pregnant women to lower the likelihood of allergies in their children, to using system dynamics software to help solve complex social problems, a number on severe brain, spinal cord and body trauma reactions and potential treatments, and one talk on a new sensor, sensitive enough to monitor the health of embryos during IVF.

The young researchers had spent the day working with different media representatives, learning how to convey and discuss their work with the media and the public. This night of talks was presented to a mostly academic audience, who were very interested in the scientific details of how the research developed, what the findings were and then what the broader applications were.

It was a brilliant night and I am keen to attend again next year to hear about the work of the next successful wave of young researchers.

P.S The Lion Hotel did a great job of hosting Fresh Science – just watch out for those extra hot chicken wings!


If you would like to know more about the FreshScience competition, or about Science in Public, check out their website at, http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au

 

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.

WOMADelaide 2016 Composting 101 Workshop

This March, I presented a workshop on composting at WOMADelaide 2016. It was a very big day that began early with dropping off all my props and gear, and finished with a rush of adrenaline in the late afternoon as I realised that it was all done. Nothing went wrong – in fact everything had gone right, and it was so much fun!

My workshop host was Deb Tribe, a fantastic presenter from 891 ABC radio. We met face to face only an hour before the workshop was due to start but she put me at ease straight away. Now, I’m used to presenting in front of a PowerPoint presentation. Usually without props, not much movement and no-one else doing any speaking.

This was very different!

The Speakers Corner stage dedicated to this year’s Planet Talks and workshops had so much infrastructure: couches and comfy chairs, trestle tables, side tables and plants all round the edges. When running through the workshop plan with Deb, she suggested we start sitting down and talking, then move over to the trestle table covered in all the composting examples, and finally move back to the couch to finish. And it wasn’t just me talking. This workshop was a conversation between Deb and I. A back and forth, with her asking questions to clarify things I was doing. To top it off we even had 3 volunteers up on stage to help build an example compost heap right then and there. The young boys that jumped up to volunteer all thought the smelly compost ingredients (like manure) were hilarious!

And it went brilliantly. I had a shock the first time I opened my mouth to talk and looking away from Deb realised that the place was full. It felt wonderful being able to read the audience, to watch their faces, bounce off their reactions and really have fun with it. We covered everything we meant to within the hour and even had time for questions – some of them really curious ones. Later on I was told that the workshop had been filmed and projected up onto a big screen up the hill where even more people had been camped out watching us.

I had the absolute best time and can’t wait for my next experience.

WOMADelaide 2016: Composting 101 workshop preparation.

I was recommended as someone who might be interested in running a workshop on compost at this years WOMADelaide festival in Adelaide. When asked I said, “Yeah, sure – why not?” after which I then went home and forgot about it. Two months later I started getting emails from WOMADelaide organisers informing me of fun details that I’d overlooked. Things like: this workshop needs to be interactive, can you write a description of it that we can advertise right now (!), it needs to go for 1 whole hour (!!) and you’ll be presenting on a stage in a tent in front of about 200 people (!!!)…. I could feel my panic levels rising.

So what have I done since then? Well I sat down and thought about how I was going to structure this workshop of mine… (Alright that’s not strictly accurate – first I freaked out and called my Dad, the business trainer, presenter and workshop runner extraordinaire). I explained that the topic was compost but that I had a free rein, except that I had to fill a whole hour. 

He very quickly got me to calm down and think about it. Yes, the time slot was 1 hour but what about time for questions? That would take at about 15 minutes. So really I only had to fill 45 minutes. And then what about introductions and people settling in? That would take at least another 5 minutes at the beginning. I concurred. So my actual time span to fill was only 40 minutes. He then said, “40 minutes? Oh that’s easy. That’s just talking about 4 topics or 4 different things for 10 minutes each. You can do that.”

It was that simple. He helped me to see that no matter how long the timespan of a workshop, presentation or speech is meant to be, all you need to do is break it down into its smaller (and much more manageable) parts.

From there it was just a matter of choosing what topics I wanted to cover in those 4 x 10 minute slots. Then to decide what I wanted to show people, what props to use and how to make it interactive. And then lots, and lots and lots of practise.

The workshop is this Sunday at 5pm. At least my compost is prepared and ready. Wish me luck!

https://www.womadelaide.com.au/program/the-planet-talks

WOMAD compost