News Archive 2014

UCD researchers get a taste of ‘improv’ to boost communication skills

Thursday, 13 March, 2014 

Twenty UCD researchers in science, engineering, humanities and law got a taste of the theatrical last week in a bid to improve their communication skills. The Straight Talking Science workshop was no ordinary day for the researchers as they engaged in ‘improv’ training to help them relate better to audiences as they explain their work. 

With little or no script, improv needs performers to spark creatively off one another and to read cues from body language and gestures. So the workshop involved exercises to loosen up their imaginations and get the researchers speaking more fluidly with presence on stage. Participants threw themselves into the tasks, throwing balls to one another, describing imaginary objects before them (a cursed diamond, a book with answers about the future, a flux capacitor, an original pressing of Yellow Submarine), building stories through word association and learning how to “plant” themselves on stage and use gestures to reinforce their points.

The session, which was held at the UCD DramSoc Theatre and Garret Fitzgerald Debating Chamber, was designed and run by performer Dr Niamh Shaw and Patrick Sutton, Director of The Gaiety School of Acting -The National Theatre School of Ireland. 

One the key elements was to encourage the researchers to tell personal stories about their work. “You have to find the personal anecdote, the one that suddenly has us interested in what you are doing,” explains Sutton. “Something with fire, energy, emotion and pathos, that whiff of cordite that your audience will remember.”

Dr Shaw, who has previously worked as a scientist and engineer, was impressed with the way in which the researchers engaged with the improv concept and tapped into their passion for their research. “We wanted people to step out of their comfort zone, to embrace this approach where you don’t know what is coming next but you go with it,” she says. “And they all did it. By the afternoon everyone could stand up and tell their story in a way that engaged us all.”

The researchers talked about the people and events that inspired them to work on their projects, they used funny metaphors to explain technologies and they relived experiences from their past that gave insights into how their research could have an impact. 

Effective communication is crucial for researchers, notes workshop participant Dr Emmanuel Reynaud. “With the rise of the Internet and the need for Institutes and Universities to attract funding and students, communication has become a major player, but without training you do what you can,” he says. 

Dr Reynaud’s work with the Tara Oceans Expedition has involved media interviews and he felt he needed more of a grounding in how to communicate his work, so he signed up for Straight Talking Science and was impressed with the session. “I hope to apply some of the tricks and games in my oral presentation workshops for undergraduates. And I think this workshop should be mandatory for senior members of staff to help improve outreach and rejuvenate an eagerness for teaching.”

An initiative of UCD Science Expression, the improv session was inspired by work at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook University, where actor Alan Alda runs improv sessions with scientists, explains Alexandra Boyd, Project Manager for Public Engagement & Outreach with UCD Research. “We will measure the impact of Straight Talking Science through a survey outlining how participants are using the skills learned in the session,” she says. “And we hope to further develop the programme and offer it again to a broader community involved in research, discovery and innovation.”

Alan Alda expressed happiness that UCD was engaging with researchers on the topic of science communication. “The need all over the world for clarity in communicating science is huge,” he says. “I helped start the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York four years ago and we've worked with hundreds of scientists since then. We see in the response of those scientists the strong desire they feel to be able to communicate better with the public, and with policy makers and funders - even with one another: amazingly, science is so specialised now that not everyone uses the same language. The scientists we work with throw themselves willingly, in fact enthusiastically, into our improvisation classes. They understand that the point of the improv we do is not to be funny or clever, but instead to learn to relate to their fellow players in ways that are personal and direct. After a while, they can face an audience with freedom and relate to a crowd with the same warmth and intimate tone that they learned in the improv games. The formal, old fashioned "lecture mode" tends to disappear and audiences can relate to the human person behind the science. The scientists tell us it makes a big difference.”