Originally published on naturejobs, the career development blog of the journal Nature

By Catherine Seed  |   September 4, 2015

Improvisation techniques can help scientists hone their key messages when addressing peers at conferences, says Catherine Seed.

You’ve spent weeks in the lab collecting, processing and analysing your data, and you’ve filed for publication. All this work took a lot of effort, time, organisation and collaboration (and coffee). Finally, you are now free to show the data to the world at the next conference (or most probably to your research group).

This step might seem like the easiest part. Once you know the results, you can share them. Talk about them until the cows come home. After all, you’ve just spent years working on them. You know them better than anyone else.  Yet it seems impossible to cram all you know – the intricacies of your study, the broader context, the unexpected results, the side-projects, how the variables link together – into a 15 minute talk at a conference! Which points should you make, and with what detail? And how? How is a presentation structured again?

Over the past couple of years I have discovered an unusual source of guidance for constructing and communicating information: Improv comedy. Recent media attention has highlighted institutions like the Alan Alda Centre at Stony Brook University and ImprovScience which teach improv’s benefits in communicating science. When you strip it back to its fundamentals, improvisation is about extremely effective communication, active listening and engagement. Improvisers are able to volley complex ideas to each other, and to tell layered stories, all in the moment. The capacity to do all of this while also entertaining an audience is astounding to watch, takes great skill and takes years to master.

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