‘IMPROV’ing My Communication Skills

I thrust my eppendorf tubes into the freezer, head off down the hill, go in to the classroom, and grab a chair. There will be 20 or so people here tonight of all different ages, from all walks of life. The room gradually fills. Some come in furtively, some greet each other and engage in a little awkward chat until it is time to begin. We get into a circle and start exchanging greetings. “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m … .” “HI, SO-AND-SO!”

This isn’t Alcoholics Anonymous. This is improv (or “Theatre Games and Improvisation Skills” to give the full title). Think Whose Line Is It Anyway? and you’re on the right track. And it’s both the most exciting and the most terrifying 2 hours of my week.

Knowing that I can keep going no matter what is thrown at me is a wonderful feeling, and I already feel more confident taking questions at presentations.

They say that the best things happen when you leave your comfort zone, and I left mine far behind when I stepped out of the lab and walked in the studio door the first time.

Why am I doing this?

I read a book on science communication by a guy called Randy Olson. I was struck by the title: . Anathema! He recommended improv classes for scientists looking to get out of their heads and learn how to talk and (more importantly) to listen. 

Googling around—because I’m still that much of a scientist—the more I read, the more interested I became. I read about the history of the improv movement, how to build up a long-form “Harold,” and about improv clubs in biology departments and for middle managers. I learned that improv is recognized as a way to develop the engagement and flexibility I was looking for, so when I found a class just down the road that was about to start, I leapt at it. If nothing else, I figured—having just moved to a new city to start a second postdoc—I would at least meet new people. So I gave it a go.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned that I’m terrible at animal impersonations. I’ve also learned some improv principles that clearly map onto life in the lab:

It’s all about “Yes, and …” The first rule of improv is to never refuse an offer. Always build on what has come before, adding your own ideas and perspective (just like science). Rather than spending forever planning the “perfect” experiment or scenario, use what a situation offers and run with it.

Think on your feet. Once we start a scene, anything can happen—and it usually does. Knowing that I can keep going no matter what is thrown at me is a wonderful feeling, and I already feel more confident taking questions at presentations.

Be specific. Details matter because they give credence to your story and  give people something to engage with. You’re pretending to be on a blind date in a café. Is it a café in Paris? In New York? Is your data from yeast or HeLa cells?

Timing matters. Playing group games is teaching me to tune in to the rhythm of a conversation, to listen as well as to talk, and to work out how and when to make myself heard most effectively.

Fake it ’til you make it. Subtle changes in body language can have a big effect on how you act and how others perceive you. One of the most powerful lessons has been how strongly my behavior influences how I feel when I experiment with different levels of status (whether I’m pretending to be a lowly Ph.D. student or an all-powerful professor).

Is it worth it?

In a word, YES. Science is about the mysteries of life and the universe. It should be gripping, and I wanted to learn how to share my passion for my work with an audience—whether that’s in a group meeting or a conference talk, to undergraduates or to the general public. Improv has been an excellent way to develop my communication skills and has opened my eyes in ways that I never expected. The classes are both fun and frightening, and I can’t wait to see what each new week will bring when I stand in the circle and say proudly, “Hi, I’m Vicky, and I’m a scientist!”

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