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I went to a workshop on improv for scientists, and you should too

UA web editor Tara Siebarth tested out the tongue-loosening properties of improv games for science communicators at the Canadian Science Policy Conference.


It’s not often that a conference session receives feedback from the room next door. “Apparently, we are being too loud,” said Nikki Berreth to her audience at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. “I guess we are having too much fun.”

The noise complaint was warranted: everyone in Ms. Berreth’s session was out of their seats, standing in groups of 12, chuckling as we shooped, bopped, zoomed and bonked at each other, pointing at the next turn-taker with our hips, hands and elbows. The session was called “Improvisation for science communication,” and yet some participants were still surprised at the amount of physical movement we were asked to do. “This is not what I expected when I read the description!” said one attendee.

According to the session’s organizers, there are two goals behind teaching improv games to science communicators. “We want to show you that it is OK, and can actually be fun, to fail; and we want you to really listen to one another,” said Alan Shapiro, who moderated the session with Ms. Berreth.

Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Berreth co-founded Science Slam Canada, an event series inspired by poetry slams where scientists perform short, informal presentations of their research to a non-expert audience. The pair was joined by panelists Maria Cortés Puch, head of national and regional Networks’ program for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a current member of the Improv Embassy Community in Ottawa; Monica Granados, a Mitacs science policy fellow and a member of the Making Box improv team in Guelph, Ontario; Jeff Dunn, graduate program director of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary and the founder of an improv-based communication training program for researchers (made in collaboration with Science Writers and Communicators of Canada and the Loose Moose Theatre); and Mitchell Beer, publisher of The Energy Mix, a digest on climate change, energy and post-carbon solutions, and a member of the Darling Mob Bosses improv team in Ottawa.

“We have found ways to take improv, which is the skill set that no one really associates with science communication, and to use it to help us share our science and connect with people in research settings, science communication settings and policy settings,” Mr. Shapiro told us. But instead of lecturing on improv for 90 minutes, he added, “why not make you guys suffer through it? And then, love it or hate it, you’re really going to get a sense of what improv is.”

After some quick introductions, the panelists quickly sectioned off the audience into groups, and helped facilitate the games. The goal of the first game, called Shoop, was to allow participants to tolerate failure. (It was also the game that got us into trouble with our next door neighbours.) Standing in a circle, each person would in turn “transfer energy” to one another by shooping (popping your hip towards the next turn-taker beside you), blocking (putting your hands up and forcing the person who just shooped to you to change direction), zooming (raising your arms to send the energy to someone across the circle) or bopping (pointing over your neighbour’s head with your elbow, skipping the turn over to the person next to them). With so many gestures to remember – and you had to say the corresponding word while doing it – it was easy for participants to lose track of turns or forget to match the right action to the right word.

“Scientists are so used to being hyper-prepared,” said one participant during the game, so these types of exercises can really push some out of their comfort zone. (I’m not a scientist, but I was also incredibly anxious as I waited for a shoop to come my way – I didn’t want to look silly in front of a group of strangers!)

The second game we played, called Three Word Story, promoted active listening. In this activity, the group tells a story three words at a time. It’s OK if the story doesn’t make sense, said Mr. Beer, but you do need to play off what the person immediately before you said. “Remember, no one is here to throw anyone under a bus. Your partners have your back.” The story in our circle started off simply enough about someone attending a conference, but quickly took a turn when a blue fox started chasing a kite through a forest. What’s interesting about this game is that not everyone needs to come up with zany  plot twists involving blue foxes and kites. Sometimes your contribution can be as simple as “went to the” or “ran away from.”

This is good practice for those who may find themselves thrown into a situation where they need to quickly think on their feet, whether in a one-on-one meeting or in a conference presentation. “One of your main goals is identify your audience and adapt [to them],” said Dr. Dunn. Ms. Puch added that the element of spontaneity in improv – the not knowing what is coming next — is a valuable skill to have not only for work, but in life. “You need to learn how to love that feeling [of the unknown].”

The last game we played, called Blocking, had the groups split up into partners and have a conversation. For the first part of the conversation, each of the responses had to be negative (for example, me: “Do you want to go grab a coffee?” My partner: “I hate coffee.”). The next step was to turn that negative response into an affirmative, but still hedging the response with something negative (me: “Do you want to grab a coffee?” My partner: “Sure, but I just heard on the radio that coffee can cause brain cancer.”). We finished with a more positive response, following the “yes, and” principle that guides most improv (me: “Do you want to grab a coffee?” My partner: “Yes! I know this great shop down the road. And, we can grab a muffin too!”). The goal of this game is to learn how to keep a conversation going, even if the person you are having it with is not giving you much to work with.

Every member of the panel was excited to share their improv experience with us. “When I was doing my PhD at McGill, I wanted to do something that would get me out of the lab and not thinking about equations,” said Dr. Granados. So, she walked into the Montreal Improv Theatre thinking she would find a new hobby. She did, but she also noticed her scientific presentations were getting much better, and that she was less anxious about giving them. “Seeing how that affected my science communication brought me here, to tell you how influential and helpful it can be to do improv,” she said.

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  1. Kim Solga / November 28, 2018 at 14:45

    Thanks for this article, Tara. The natural post-script, of course, is for all the scientists in the room (and all of us reading) to now think carefully about what extraordinary value for their teaching and their knowledge mobilization they just received… from an ARTS-based practice.

    These researchers likely come from schools where their colleagues in the arts and humanities are suffering grave budget cuts and constant negative messaging about the relative lack of value of their work. But this example is qualitative evidence of the contrary: not only does arts labour support better, clearer, more enjoyable communication across community lines, but it also has much to offer the disciplines to which it is typically negatively compared on all kinds of measures – measures the structurally favour hard sciences at the expense of “soft” skill disciplines.

    My sincerest hope is that the scientists in attendance at this workshop return to their home universities and tell all and sundry about this experience – emphasizing in the process the skills and expertise of those who helped to guide them.