What Scientists Can Learn From Stand Up Comedians

May 26, 2021
Hello SciCom Team

A scientist and a standup comedian walk into a bar. The scientist rubs her head, looks at the bar, wonders how it got there, and starts a grant application to research head trauma. The standup comedian says “shit, I don’t have health insurance.”

Comedy and science might seem very different, but they have a lot more in common than you think.

Comedians have physicists and inventors to thank for the microphone, without which they’d probably be shouting into a rock taped to a stick. And scientists have comedians to thank for creative icebreakers, without which they’d probably be nervously fumbling with index cards throughout their entire presentation.

In fact, there are a few techniques from standup comedy that can help scientists effectively present their work.

  1. Keep it short

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Editing is an essential tool for standup –– in a late night set that’s five minutes or less, and there’s no room for fat. These days, the same goes for many academic presentations. No one wants to sit through an hour-long presentation about the mating habits of pufferfish –– though we’re sure that’s fascinating. Scientists actually need to learn how to make strong but brief statements for their own careers. For example, most conference presentations have a standard length of about 20 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to cram an entire year (or sometimes decades) of research findings.

So, as you edit your next big presentation, channel your inner stand-up comic and think about how to answer two questions in as few words as possible:

  • What did I actually learn?
  • Why does it matter?
  1. Think about your “punchline”

Most jokes have pretty similar structures. You have a set up, in which you give the audience information and context, and then you have a punchline, in which you tell them a new piece of information that leads to a moment of surprise. It’s an easy way for audiences to follow your logic. Of course, in a conference or presentation, your main goal is not to make people laugh –– and if they do, it’s hopefully intentional. But putting the information your audience needs to understand one of your points can help drive that point home. Context matters for your “punchline.”

  1. Practice makes perfect

By the time a comedian performs on The Tonight Show, they’ve told their jokes hundreds of times. And if they haven’t, it shows. Now, we’re not saying you should subject the nearest open mic to a dozen recitations of your dissertation defense (but if you do, please let us know). We’re saying that when you’re giving a presentation or a talk, it’s important to actually, you know, practice what you’re going to say.This is especially important if public speaking makes you nervous. You’re not alone. Even great comedians get nervous for practically every single performance. Nerves actually mean that you care and can energize a performance. And practice can give you the confidence you need to stop performance jitters from derailing you once you hit the podium.

  1. Have a good opener and closer

Good comedians open and close with their best jokes. This makes sense: An audience that has already laughed trusts you to make them laugh again. And a good closer leaves a crowd happy at the end of the night. You don’t need to open with a dirty microbiology limerick (though you can send those to our inbox any time), but you should start strong. Don’t be afraid to share the findings of your research right up top. If your audience could only come away with one piece of information from your talk, what would it be? Close with that.

  1. Slow it way down

The audience at an academic conference may not be as drunk as the one at the comedy club on a Friday night. We hope. Perhaps we’re underestimating how much scientists like to party.

Comedians know, especially when performing for audiences who are tired or tipsy, that you have to go slow. Not like the slow motion scenes in the movie 300 or anything, but definitely slow enough to let the information sink in. Bring a water bottle to the podium, breathe between sentences, and trust that your audience will stay with you –– even if you’re not speaking at the rate of a hummingbird on amphetamines. Just keep it easy and be grateful that bachelorette parties never go to dissertation defenses.

  1. Get feedback

Stand up comedy is a compelling art form because jokes are built over time in front of a live audience that gives you instant feedback. Get a laugh? Great. Find a way to make it even bigger. Didn’t get a laugh? You’re going to have to rework it until you do. For scientists, this means practicing your presentation in front of other people and asking for their feedback. Remember when we said, “practice makes perfect?” Now you’re taking it one step further.

Grab a friend who’s a good listener, practice with coworkers over lunch, or just bribe some undernourished grad students with pizza and cheap beer. Ask them: Could they read your slides? Could they follow your research? Did they like your pun about organic chemistry at the top of your speech? And no matter what, take their feedback as gracefully as possible. They’re just trying to help.

Break a leg, folks! Unless you’re headed to an orthopedic surgery conference.