About seventeen years ago, I was asked to host a series on public television called
Scientific American Frontiers. I was excited by the prospect because I had
been reading for almost three decades every article in every issue of Scientific
American. This is not to say I understood everything I read. I had no formal
training in science and sometimes I couldn’t even understand the magazine’s
pictures. But I loved science and I would spend hours puzzling out articles
written in what at first had seemed like a foreign language, but with practice eventually
became more familiar.
Now, on the television show, I would spend whole days talking with scientists about
their work. For the eleven years the show ran, I had a chance to exercise my curiosity,
and along the way we developed an unusual kind of science show. I wouldn’t
ask formal questions set out in a didactic way; instead the scientists and I would
have an impromptu conversation—a spontaneous attempt on my part to truly understand
their work. If I didn’t get it, I would keep after them until I did. Sometimes
there was an amusing sense of frustration expressed on both sides. But their genuine
effort to help me understand brought out the scientists’ human side. They
were relaxed, they spoke simply, and they were often funny. They weren’t lecturing
me; instead, we were having a conversation.
I began to realize how important this distinction was one day when a scientist was
explaining her work to me on camera. She was engaging and clear. But a few minutes
into our talk she realized, I suppose, that what she was saying was very much like
a lecture she was used to giving. She turned slowly away from me and started speaking
directly to the camera. Our conversation came to a halt. Now, she was in lecture
mode. Her tone of voice lost its simple, natural quality, and her words became more
formal and laced with jargon. Within a minute, I found her hard to understand and
I knew she had probably left the audience behind, too. This was unsettling because
I wanted very much to understand her work. I coaxed her back with naive questions
and her tone became warm again. Looking into the face of another human, eager to
understand, her language once more became comprehensible. After a couple of minutes,
though, she drifted off into lecture mode again and I had to draw her back. This
happened three or four times, and it made a profound impression on me. There seemed
to be a tremendous difference between talking in general, to no one in particular,
and speaking to an actual person. It was the difference between speaking in her
own natural voice and becoming almost an automaton. It reminded me of my days as
a young actor when I had studied the rigorous art of improvisation. I, too, went
from mechanically seeming to relate to actual contact.
It made me wonder: if scientists could communicate more in their own voices—in
a familiar tone, with a less specialized vocabulary—would a wide range of
people understand them better? Would their work be better understood by the general
public, policy-makers, funders, and, even in some cases, other scientists?
As a young actor, I was transformed by learning to improvise. Almost everyone I
knew who had studied it was changed for the better by it—because the heart
of improvisation, far less than the ability to make things up, is relating and communicating
I wondered if being exposed to the techniques of improvisation could help scientists
improve their oral presentations. I asked a friend at USC if she could arrange for
me to work for an afternoon with twenty engineering students. I began the session
by having the students talk for a couple of minutes about their work. Then we improvised
for three hours, and after that the students spoke again. There was a noticeable
improvement in their ability to communicate and to speak with an animation and presence
that encouraged listeners to stay with them. They had begun to relate better.
Oral presentation is, of course, only one small part of the communication of science.
But I was curious to see if this unconventional approach might have a place in building
a bridge between the rigor of science and the curiosity of non-scientists.
A couple of years later, we tried the experiment again at Stony Brook University
and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and we seemed to get similar, positive results.
(A short video of what we did is available at www.stonybrook.edu/journalism/science.)
The next step will be to test the results more rigorously—for instance, we
might poll audiences on the clarity of scientists’ presentations before the
scientists learn to use these techniques and then again after they’ve studied
them to see if their second presentations actually rate higher.
It’s clear that improvisation is not the only way to improve oral presentations,
and neither is oral presentation the only kind of communication that’s keeping
non-scientists away from the pleasures of science. Stronger writing skills need
to be developed as well. To address the full range, Stony Brook has founded a Center
for Communicating Science, which will offer courses in all forms of communication.
In Spring 2010, the center began a series of conferences in partnership with Brookhaven
National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that included workshops on
distilling the message, writing for the public, interacting with the media, using
newer media, and improvisation. An early review of questionnaires completed by scientists
who participated showed a strong interest in these workshops.
The effort is not to oversimplify science. We need clarity and vividness, but not—please,
not—dumbing down. Some of our great science communicators have shown that
there are deeply engaging stories in science (science itself is the greatest detective
story ever told) and that it’s possible to be personal and passionate about
the study of nature without losing respect for the precision and accuracy at the
heart of that study. Richard Feynman was both fun to listen to and precise.
Even when he explained something in simple terms, he usually let you know that it
was often more complicated than that. And when you were ready, he let you in on
a little more of the complexity.
Feynman was one of those extraordinary communicators that nature produces from time
to time. But they occur by chance. Why should effective, inspiring communication
of science be left to chance? Science is rigorous; can’t we be just as rigorous
about teaching its communication?
Is it too much to hope that there will be a time when the skills of communicating
science will be taught as a regular part of the science curriculum, and not as something
added on for a few hours at the end? Isn’t good communication fundamental
to science? How else can it be successfully replicated, funded, and taught?
But don’t let my high-flown arguments fool you. This is really a selfish plea.
I’m too old to learn all the math and chemistry I need to understand the subtleties
of the Higgs particle or the intricacies of reverse transcriptase. Even if I did,
I’d only have access to one small part of the whole. I want to stand next
to you scientists and gaze out at the entire horizon, while you point out what to
Every scientist reading this has a deep passion for science. I implore you: let
your passion out. Share it with us. Warmly, with stories, imagination, even with
humor. But most of all, in your own voice.