Lessons Learned on Stage: How Improv Can Improve Science Communication

Friday, 19 December 2014: 9:45 AM
Gifford J Wong, Christian Kohn, Mark A McPeek and Nancy Serrell, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, United States
A challenge facing STEM graduate students is the daunting task of communicating their research to a non-specialist audience. Strategies that work well in lab group meetings, such as using acronyms and jargon, do not work in the real world. Ideally, scientists should directly connect with any audience, responding spontaneously and actively, distilling their messages into conversational morsels that resonate with that audience. Scientists should listen.

This presentation highlights a 10-week, interdisciplinary graduate course at Dartmouth College that teaches methods for communicating science with clarity, vividness, and emotion. The course was developed in partnership with Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and emphasizes story-telling, two-way communication, active listening, and so much more. Effective message development and communication skills – spontaneity, authenticity, and connectivity – are honed through improvisational theater exercises.

One might ask, “why improv?” As a co-developer/co-instructor of this graduate course and a Ph.D. candidate in Earth Sciences, my response is, “why not improv?” Improv is acting without a script. It is also underground rap battles, baking from scratch, and playing jazz flute. Improv is Macguyver. Improv is not any one particular thing so much as it is a process through which we do things. Improv can teach us a lot: how to play, how to feel comfortable and present even while flailing, and how to truly listen.