“When scientists, or anyone in a STEM field, are communicating their work, it needs to have a ‘so what’ factor. Why does this matter to me, or why should I care about what it is that you’re telling me,” says Heather Barnes, Founder of Improv @ Work, LLC, and  a faculty member of The Second City, home to Chicago’s renowned improvisational comedy center.  “I find again and again, scientists don’t start with that. They start with the details and immediately disengage their audience. The main point is lost, as is the opportunity [for the listener] to engage in the scientific process and to teach someone something.”

Earlier this year, Northwestern University’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP) invited Barnes to lead a full-day improv-based science communications workshop for graduate students in its NIH Postdoctoral Training Program.  The program trains highly qualified graduate students in chemistry, biology and engineering to work across disciplines and apply cross-disciplinary approaches and tools to their research. It also provides exclusive opportunities to interact with academic and industry leaders and develop valuable career skills.

“Our graduate trainees are so smart and really excel at science,” said Penelope Johnson, Senior Project Coordinator and program coordinator for the NIH-funded CLP Predoctoral Training Program, “Because their knowledge is so advanced, it can be hard sometimes to communicate what they are doing in the lab to someone like me who doesn’t know anything about science.”

For more than 20 years, Barnes has helped researchers and scientists, from universities and medical centers to museums, make their work more accessible to key stakeholders. As Director of the Aquatic Presentation at the John G. Shedd Aquarium and, previously, at the Museum of Science and Industry, Barnes delighted audiences with innovative programs guided by the principles of improvisation.

Barnes teases out students’ insecurities by creating a safe space for experimentation, as well as failure.

“People are quick to judge themselves. There’s a big fear of I’m not a good public speaker, or this is not something I can do,” says Barnes.  “A big part of the work is how we process a mistake, move on and show our human side. We want to free up people’s judgment of themselves and of each other.”

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Stony Brook University, after just 20 minutes of theater improv experience, people feel happier, more creative and tolerant of uncertainty. The key is learning how to relax, live in the moment, and talk with—not at—your audience. Barnes challenges students to distill their messages using audience input, instead of undeviating from a memorized, rigid script.

“It’s so important because if we aren’t able to get our message across to the public or to funders, then we’re not going to engage people or get funding. We’re not going to have people voting on our issues and our topics,” said Barnes.

Breaking down barriers

During the morning half of the workshop, Barnes introduced students to basic improv activities.

“We get up and immediately break down barriers by doing some things we may be terrified of doing in public like moving like a Britney Spears backup dancer while counting backwards from eight to one,” says Barnes. “By immediately creating a positive, supportive and fun environment for making mistakes together, we create a safe space for failure. A big part of the work is teaching people to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s important to free up judgment of ourselves and of each other. This allows everyone to see that we can succeed and get through even the toughest situations.”

The exercises paid off as the young scientists began to loosen up.

“At first, I was nervous—I’ve always gone to improv shows and thought I could never do improv and would be too scared to try,” says workshop participant Marija Milisavljevic. “But, it turns out, in a small setting with a great instructor and some awesome people, it’s so much fun.”

Distilling the message

In the afternoon, students practiced distilling their messages.  Barnes paired up students and asked them to take turns talking about their work in under three minutes. After receiving feedback from their partner, students would try their elevator pitch again until, eventually, they succeeded in boiling it down to one minute.

“It was pretty incredible how much students improved their pitches just by having someone else listen and offer advice on how to make their segment more relatable,” says Johnson.

Rather than just reciting talking points, Barnes encouraged students to use stories, make analogies, and offer emotional examples to pique and hold their audience’s interest. She also advised students to ask a question in the first 60 seconds of their talk to keep audience members actively engaged.

“I’ve always struggled with explaining what I do to my friends and family who aren’t in STEM fields,” says Milisavljevic. “So much of what we were doing wasn’t about us individually, but about the group as a whole. I loved this message because I think progress in science is all about groups collaborating and sharing and communicating ideas effectively for the greater good.”

To quell concerns about oversimplification or “dumbing down” their work, Barnes played a popular science video in which the speaker completely avoided the use of scientific terminology.

“Research bears out that if you’re able to talk in an accessible language and avoid jargon, people actually think you’re more intelligent than if you’re just talking over people’s heads using industry and role specific jargon. ” says Barnes.

The workshop struck a chord with participants.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” said Luifer Schachner, a sixth-year graduate student participant. “I came out invigorated, relaxed, and excited to keep working on my science.”

by Lisa La Vallee