What can scientists learn from standup comedy?


I have what could generously be called “a mixed professional background,” or what could ungenerously be called “divided focus verging on negligence”: For the past 2 decades or so, I’ve worked as both a molecular biologist and a stand-up comedian.

I also teach stand-up comedy to undergrads. As I was reviewing the curriculum for an upcoming class, I realized how often speakers giving scientific seminars don’t know—or worse, flagrantly neglect—many of the basic principles of presenter-audience dynamics. And I mean day one kind of stuff. It often seems like no one cares how a scientific presentation is received. For some reason, we think of comedy shows as shows, but we think of scientific seminars as journal articles that, inconveniently, have to be communicated verbally by a living organism.

I know seminars aren’t nightclub acts. But I think scientists at the microphone could benefit from adopting some of the fundamental theatrical principles that make an audience not want to run screaming. With that in mind, here are some basic lessons from the world of stand-up comedy.

  1. Most of all, a comedian is constantly thinking about what everyone else in the room must be thinking. Do they hear me? Do they hear each other when they ask questions? Are they following what I’m saying? Do they like it? Is their attention drifting? Words are coming out of the comedian’s mouth, but their brain is wondering what more they could do to enrapture and enthrall. Scientists, on the other hand, seem to think that simply speaking the talk, while standing and facing the opposite direction from the audience,the accomplishment. It’s not. Think of yourself not just as a deliverer of facts, but as a performer for whom the art of the delivery is crucial to communication. I’m not saying to do it funny. Just do it well.

How I negotiated paternity leave in a place where it’s not the norm

Why I livestream my science