Improv(ing) science communication at IUPUI


Communication seems like second nature for some scientists. Experts like Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan regularly appear on television and have active Twitter feeds, designed to make science accessible to the average citizen. 

However, for most scientists and physicians, communication is not a part of their training - until now, that is. Communication faculty like me are working with researchers in the IUPUI School of Science and IU School of Medicine to communicate more effectively with the lay public. Since early 2015, nearly 100 faculty, residents, and Ph.D. students have participated in our workshops and programs designed to build relationships and empathize with the audience, regardless of their area of expertise. 

This unique intervention, called "applied improvisation," uses the techniques of improvisational theater to solve problems in other contexts. In the case of science communication, simply delivering a speech with more flair or better slides will not improve the communication gap with the public. Scientific experts need the ability to "position take" with their audiences. They need the skills of empathetic imagination, an ability to think like their audience, and responsiveness to an audience's needs and interests. 

Our goal is not to make our participants funny. Rather, our workshops help scientists connect to their audience through building relationships and understanding. This training is offered through IU's affiliation with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University in New York. The three workshop series includes: "Improv for Scientists," "Distilling Your Message," and "Media Training." Each workshop uses a series of games and activities to teach participants how to listen closely, use storytelling and metaphor to increase understanding, and speak in accessible language. The workshop facilitators are trained in scientific writing, public speaking, and theater. 

Rather than scripting presentations word-for-word, we teach our participants to be responsive and work together with their audience to build shared understanding. Reframing communication as a collaborative process helps scientists address the curse of knowledge, by which experts easily forget the time when they were novices in their field. Instead, communication theory and applied improvisation emphasize communication partnerships that equalize the power differentials between expert and public. 

The response to the workshops and programs have been overwhelmingly positive. Our participants have gone on to be interviewed on WFYI and participate in the national three-minute thesis competition. In addition to the three workshop series, we have two exciting projects in the works. First, we are creating a graduate minor in communicating science, funded by the IUPUI Center for Teaching and Learning. We are also using these techniques to train pediatric residents to communicate more effectively with their patients and their families. Participants in both of these programs will have an opportunity to test out their new skills with community science events and local school groups.

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