Monday, January 16, 2012

Big Wide World - Not for the faint hearted – science stand-up

Vicky Young, PhD and MBA student
6308995038_4522443df2_o.jpg(Image: Daniel Ridley-Ellis)
Every scientist has to present their research from time to time. A lot of people love doing it and this shines through - they are great presenters who can make just about any subject riveting. Unfortunately, there are just as many people who suck at it. I fall in the latter category. I get the fear and seize up like taxidermied moose gone wrong. It's so terrible that I avoid presenting as much as possible.
So when I heard about Bright Club, a stand-up comedy evening where academics perform a routine based upon their research, it was never an option that I would ever volunteer. But one night, after an evening spent at the pub, I posted on twitter and Steve Cross, the man responsible for Bright Club, pounced on me with a request to perform at Green Man Music Festival. Not in my most reasonable frame of mind, I agreed before really thinking it through.
I know what you are thinking, research and comedy? Research and comedy?! That's a car crash waiting to happen. Well, that is what it felt like the morning after I had signed up to do eight minutes of stand-up comedy based on my research at a well known music festival.
Most of the time, no scientist wants their research - the project they are sweating blood and tears for - to be laughed at. It is your baby and people should treat it with respect. So, as you can imagine, I was little nervous as I made my way to the first training session. In fact, I spent most of the journey there running through all the excuses I could use to get out of doing it. Then to my horror, the "training" consisted of being handed a book called "Be a Great Stand-Up", with the instruction to go away, read it and then write a set.
The second training session a week later was when everything started to change. To my surprise, the book had helped a lot and had taught me not only how to make a joke but how to deliver it. I just didn't know if what I had written was funny. Standing up in front of the other would-be comics and telling jokes about my research was horrific. I was almost sick before I went on stage, but everyone was very supportive and laughed a lot more than I had hoped for. The feedback was honest, constructive and very encouraging. It was the first time I had actually enjoyed presenting any aspect of my research to people other than my close lab colleagues.
On the day of the show, I was a wreck. The thought that I could not only do stand-up but stand-up based on my research, and make a general audience (not even a scientific one) laugh, was unfathomable. Luckily, as time drew nearer I found out that I was one of the last to perform. Watching the others eased my mind slightly as it was obvious the audience was finding the whole thing pretty funny. When it was finally my turn, it only took about a minute until I started to relax and actually enjoy the experience. I was making people laugh! The feeling coming off stage was a mixture of relief that I had survived and delight that I had made the audience laugh, and who knows, maybe I even taught them something about my research.
Looking back, I'm glad I got coerced into Bright Club because it turned out to be the best presentations skills course I've ever done. Since the event I have been much more confident presenting my work. I tend to work on the assumption that if I can make an audience at a music festival laugh at my research, then I can deliver any graph with ease!

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