In the Quest for Public Engagement, Scientists Should Look to Humor, Comedian Says

As a job title, "science comedian" may sound like an oxymoron, but Brian Malow has a knack for infusing scientific topics with humor and wordplay. “Did anyone see ‘Avatar’?” he asked a room full of science-types. “I actually saw Avatar in 11-D—it was the string theory version.” The line elicited a hearty laugh from the room.

It’s a joke that not all audiences would understand. But Malow, a professional comedian, knows that scientific jargon is appropriate for an audience of researchers and science journalists. That’s a crucial lesson: You have to know your audience. The audience is not an “amorphous blob,” he says, but made up of individuals who can connect with stories. If you want to engage the audience, telling stories and anecdotes is a key communication tool.

 

When in doubt, Malow suggests smiling. “It’s good to look like you’re about to say something funny... you are funny,” he says.  “Trust me, people are laughing at you.”

Malow shared his one-liners and tips for effective communication during a workshop,  “The Science of Comedy: Communicating with Humor,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting. Malow is a contributor to Time magazine’s science video series, and the NSF-funded radio show StarTalk with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The workshop went 15 minutes over its allotted 60-minute time-slot and the room was filled beyond capacity, buzzing with energy and laughter. By the end of the workshop, the two sets of doors were open and listeners were spilling into the hall.

Malow kept his audience laughing throughout the session, but his presentation was rich in insight on how scientists—or anyone else—can communicate effectively. Another basic lesson: Remember to be human. Don’t be afraid to reveal something about yourself. It’s important to remember why you fell in love with science and why you fell in love with your field. “They shouldn’t be esoteric reasons,” Malow warns. “They should be at the [audience’s] level.”

Setting up the context of a story, or scientific research, will help prepare the audience for more detailed information presented later on. “Your research doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s in the context of the history of science. So if you can share that, people will understand it better,” Malow says. Context is a literary device used in books and movies; it’s not unique to comedy.

Delivering humor requires the same skills required for effective communication in general. Analogies and puns are devices that allow you to explain something to an audience that may be clear to you, but more difficult for them to understand. Concepts can become clearer by using puns. “Comedy is about combining two different ideas, such as, ‘I was in an excited state and I had a spontaneous emission’.”  Pop-culture references should be used appropriately to draw in your audience, but they must be relevant to the topic.

Malow suggests writing down vocabulary words associated with the subject. For any subject, write down factual statements, phrases, clichés and definitions of words. Find an unexpected meaning for a word. Play with words. For example: “A virus walks into a bar, the bar tender says, ‘We don’t serve viruses in this bar.’ The virus replaces the bartender and says, ‘Well now we do.’” It helps that Malow’s delivery is well-timed, appropriate, and passionate.

Malow acknowledges that visual computer slides are a powerful tool. He emphasizes that they should not include a lot of words. He uses memorable graphics during a mini-presentation titled “How Wine Saved the World.” To illustrate how Louis Pasteur was a “super-chemist,” the slide shows a Photoshopped image of Pasteur’s head on Superman’s body. The visuals should have an impact, they should not be a written-out version of what you’re speaking to the audience.

Quotations can also be a way to lighten the mood. “It’s easy to be funny,” Malow says, “just use someone else’s humor.” But he adds that it has to be relevant and it has to be delivered with confidence. You have to believe what you’re saying. Malow repeated many times during the workshop that it’s important to be prepared and to practice. Not every attempt at humor is going to work, and it’s okay to acknowledge your failings and then move on.

The most important advice? “Be yourself,” Malow says. “Be human. And hopefully those aren’t mutually exclusive.”