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Unscripting science – Improv for scientists

Eisha Mhatre

This article by Eisha Mhatre, The Experimentalist, explores the idea of scientists using improvisation tools to enhance their communication skills and approaching creative ways to bridge the gap between science and society. Eisha also shares her experiences with improv and how it helped her overcome the communication challenges during her scientific journey. 

Unscripting science imrov
Unscripting science – Improv for scientists. Image for representation only.

What’s common between scientists and improv artists? Both delve into unchartered territories, develop novel ideas and concepts, encounter situations that demand quick thinking, and often excel in collaborative settings. What sets them apart is how the audience perceives them. While improv artists captivate audiences, the scientists usually alienate them. The following conversation between two great personalities explains this dichotomy very well.

Albert Einstein to Charlie Chaplin, What I most admire about your art, is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you’. 

To which Chaplin replied, True, but your glory is even greater. The world admires you, even though they don’t understand a word of what you say’. 

Today scientists more than ever need to explain their work to a wider audience, as misinformation spreads rapidly. However, communicating science comes with its own set of challenges. Many researchers are apprehensive about presenting their findings, even to their peers, let alone engaging with the general public. Furthermore, scientific language is not always accessible to non-scientific audiences, including members from grant-awarding bodies, media professionals, and students. What scientists need today are lessons in audience engagement from artists’ playbook. Scientists can effectively use improvisation tools to enhance their communication skills and approach creative ways to bridge the gap between science and society.

Stumbling upon improv

I faced communication challenges during my postdoctoral research. After moving to Pittsburgh, USA following my PhD, I quickly realised that, as a molecular biologist, my scientific presentations didn’t always resonate with my peers in evolutionary biology. Breaking this communication barrier was a struggle. Fortunately, improvisation tools came to my rescue. I joined classes at the Steel City Improv Theatre (SCIT) and discovered that improv held the answers to my communication challenges. 

Eisha Mhatre performing improv at SCIT, Pittsburgh. Picture Credit: Eisha Mhatre.
Eisha Mhatre performing improv at SCIT, Pittsburgh. Picture Credit: Eisha Mhatre.

Surprisingly, my co-improvisers weren’t expert actors! They came from various professions, including doctors, managers, and restauranteurs who came to learn improv to become better communicators.

What is improv and how can scientists benefit from it?

Improv is a series of unscripted actions and dialogues performed in the moment, called scenes. These performances can be your everyday situations often amplified for a reaction such as laughter. Improv comes with a set of rules. For example, in a scene, when you and your partners take centre stage with your own ideas, as soon as someone starts the conversation, you assertively align to their ideas and proceed to build upon them. This is one of the rules called YES-AND’. This principle encourages a supportive environment and helps develop a connection with your collaborator. It in no way means there is no scope to say no when one tries to adapt YES-AND in real situations. In fact, the idea of YES-AND is to be more receptive to others and make conversations listener centred. 

The other rule of improv DISCOVER THE GAME’ assists in identifying Easter eggs’ in the conversation that can unlock new possibilities in your discussion. For instance, consider yourself as a new researcher pitching your experimental setup to your research committee. As the committee asks questions and gives comments, it is helpful to pay attention to their words, and incorporate their comments in your presentation. This will help you to gain support and elevate your proposal. Nevertheless, improvising your talk at the last minute or thinking swiftly when you are in the spotlight can be intimidating. Improv exercises help achieve that comfort-level and confidence to handle such situations with ease. Additionally, improv encourages you to maintain eye contact, be fully present in the moment, and builds confidence, all of which are essential for effective communication.

Improv for scientists is not a new concept; it was initiated in 2009 when award-winning American actor Alan Alda partnered with the Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, New York, where he taught scientists unique ways to give engaging talks. His improvisational techniques equipped researchers to break away from the traditional, jargon-filled presentations and embrace more accessible communication methods that involved articulating complex scientific concepts in a clear and relatable manner. 

Getting started with improv

Improv workshops have become a common feature in universities across the USA. For Indian research institutes, however, improv is still new and an unexplored domain. A few improv groups in India are collaborating with schools and colleges to introduce more young minds to the idea of improv. It is also being introduced in festivals such as IIT Bombay’s Mood Indigo. A common misconception about improv, which may deter scientists from embracing it, is the idea that it must be funny. Scientists could be concerned that using improv techniques in their work will trivialise or ridicule their research. 

The objective of teaching improv to scientists is not to turn them into comedians, but rather to make them mindful of their audience and become effective communicators. 

Engaging in improv is not just confined to communicating science effectively; it can be instrumental in stimulating out-of-box thinking and finding creative ways to tackle roadblocks in research journeys. The rules of improvisation offer valuable insights into enhancing networking within your academic circles, including colleagues and supervisors. Improv clubs have notably proliferated in numerous cities across India, offering courses to enthusiasts. Alternatively, you can sign-up for Improv for Scientists’ virtual sessions with The Experimentalist.

Consider taking improv lessons and, subsequently, establishing an improv club within your research institute to perform improv with your fellow scientists. Improv is a community building artform and has the potential to transform our approach to networking, making it particularly appealing to scientific community.

Written By

Eisha Mhatre, the founder of the science communication platform The Experimentalist, is passionate about bringing the voices of scientists to the forefront and engaging the public in the stories and challenges behind scientific discoveries. She conducts workshops on science writing, science communication, and improv for scientists.