Adventures in Science Communication – Stand-up comedy edition

I’m not funny. Well, I’m not “laugh out loud” funny. I’ve never been the kind of person who has told jokes and, unlike many in an American genre TV programme, I would never have won the ‘Class Clown’ award. So how on earth did I end up spending three hours this week in a stand-up comedy training session?

There’s obviously the answer that a lot of the 11 people on the call would give: i.e. we need continuous professional development (CPD) points and, as Healthcare Scientists in the time of COVID-19, that’s not as easy. For anyone that doesn’t work in our profession, we have to show that we engage in a set number of hours of active learning and updating our practice. This helps us stay safe but also encourages a growth mindset where we learn new skills.

Secondly, the funding for the sessions is from a public engagement grant that my brilliant deputy was awarded by the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM). My deputy is super brave and was invited to do a show last year, having never done any stand-up comedy. As part of my role as leader, I felt it was incredibly important to actively participate in something that she had put energy into and believed would make us better communicators. Also, I’m a Trustee for SfAM and they do great work in supporting scientists in stepping out of their boxes and trying something new to communicate differently. I really buy into this and so, despite being slightly terrified, it was the right thing to do.

Step out of your box and give it a go

The session was delivered by Dr Steve Cross who is a consultant in public engagement and education. He started off the session by saying that he enjoys teaching nerds to be funny. Well, as a self confessed mega-nerd, this was a good start from where I was sitting. The session was a real mix of scientific backgrounds: from social science, infection specialists, pathologists, physiologists, through to medical physicists. This is one of the great things about sessions like these: networking is a great and often unexpected benefit and you get to spend hours with scientists you would never encounter otherwise and learn about their worlds.

Never underestimate the power of stories

We started out by discussing what we thought was funny. I had failed to do my homework and so hadn’t brought a clip with me (I know, an automatic F!) But the better prepared participants showed YouTube clips that made them laugh and discussed why. In an attempt to raise my grade from an F to a D, the clip below (belatedly) is something that makes me chuckle.

From watching the different clips I began to reflect on the power of stories. One of the reasons that Nicola Baldwin (the playwright I work with) and I utilise drama is because we believe in the power of drama to communicate, break down barriers and alter behaviour. It was fascinating to think about how comedy can be used to:

  • See things from a new direction
  • Explore differing opinions in a confrontation-free way
  • To confront and explore upsetting/worrying topics avoiding direct triggers
  • Enable the voicing of secret thoughts that are very common but we fear discussing openly
  • Talk about common experiences as if they are new in order to gain fresh insight
  • Subvert expectations
  • Inspire or start conversations

A lot of these points can be extrapolated to the reason Nicola and I use drama. The power of comedy is the portability and equal access nature of it. It doesn’t require huge amounts of resources to prepare a set, it doesn’t require a lot of resources to deliver a set, and it can be delivered flexibly across zoom or in person.

Steve ran us through a bunch of very easy to access and non terrifying exercises. Many of these involved us taking a story or event and reflecting on it in order to delve deeper into emotions connected with it. We then discussed how these stories and linked emotions could be used to make people laugh. Obviously there’s way more to it, but Steve is the king and we are running more of these sessions if you’d like to give it a go and participate yourself.

My main reflections from the session were:

  • Undertaking this kind of training can enable you to see situations differently and explore ways of seeing them from another’s point of view
  • Learning to break situations down and actively think about how to communicate them is a transferrable skill which is really useful in your professional practice
  • Understanding how stories can be used to create empathy and engage audiences isn’t just important for comedy. This technique can be used to support you bringing your whole self to work and break down communication barriers

All opinions in this blog are my own

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