The Science of Comedy
Feb22

The Science of Comedy

In this International Year of Chemistry--a period when we chemists are set to celebrate the central science and hype its benefits to the public--communication skills are of the utmost importance. Presentation style is key to drawing a general audience in, and a little humor doesn't hurt either. This was on my mind while I was listening to science comedian Brian Malow speak this weekend at the AAAS meeting in Washington D.C. Although he certainly did do some stand-up, Malow (click here to read a previous C&EN interview) wasn't there just to get a couple of laughs. He was there to give attendees pointers on how to liven up their presentations. "Be yourself, be human, be passionate, be present and engaged, and be prepared," he advised. Sure, Malow slipped in some of the "walked into a bar" jokes that he's known for (see video clip I found to watch him in action), but he actually had some serious suggestions. To a packed room of people huddled in corners and sitting on the floor, Malow proposed that anyone could be funny with some practice. In general, comedy is innate (you've either got it or you don't), but the comedian insisted that scientists could draw in an audience with a few zingers by being good Boy and Girl Scouts and being thoroughly prepared. Use analogies, he suggested, after plying the attendees with one about smokers at the airport puffing away in those designated glass-walled rooms. It's like a zoo, he quipped, and you can educate your kids about the endangered smoking species--Homo emphyzemus--that way. "By exaggerating the relationship, it gets the meaning across," he added. Malow also suggested using word play to write jokes. Write down lists of words and concepts, and start matching them to come up with surprising metaphors, he said. Chemistry, in particular, is full of words with dual meanings. Before a talk he gave for the American Chemical Society, he said, an organizer asked whether he could do something off the cuff. "I'm so spontaneous, I have a negative delta G," he said with panache. And here's another one: "I was in an excited state, and I had a spontaneous emission." Working in analogies and entertainment at the start of a presentation really sets the tone, he said. Some chemists might say they shouldn't have to tap dance for their audiences in this way. But later that afternoon, in a session I was attending on neuroprosthetics, there it was: a great talk. It was entertaining, filled with videos, and replete with analogies (maybe not humorous, but very helpful) to explain the technique electrocorticography (ECoG). Traditional methods of tapping into the brain to measure electrical...

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