Marketing for Scientists

It Sounds Almost Like Stereo: Elizabeth Bass on Improvisational Acting with Scientists

(This article was originally published in Nature.)

Elizabeth Bass’s job title doesn’t sound odd; she is the director of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  But what she does may strike you as challenging to say the least.  Founded in 2009 at the urging of Alan Alda, the Center for Communicating Science helps scientists become better communicators using, among other things, exercises in improvisational acting.

I’ve been fascinated by the notion of combining science communication and acting ever since Nobel Laureate John Mather told me how he thought studying acting had helped him succeed as a physicist.  So I jumped at the chance to interview Liz when I was visiting Stony Brook last fall.  I also wrote briefly about the Center for Communicating Science this summer, in an article about a contest they sponsored called the Flame Challenge.

Before taking on leadership of the Center for Communicating Science, Liz worked for 20 years as a journalist at Newsday, where she served as deputy national editor, deputy foreign editor, and health and science editor. She has also co-authored two books, Bioterrorism: A Guide for Hospital Preparedness, and KidsHealth Guide for Parents: Pregnancy to Age 5.

I had lots of questions for Liz, and our interview turned into a long conversation.  Here is an excerpt that I found surprising—about the essence of improvisational acting, and why acting exercises can be a challenge for scientists.

Marc:  Liz, tell me about the concept of teaching improvisational acting to scientists.

Liz:  That really came from Alan Alda, and it was based on his personal experience. He said that the only acting training he ever had was improvisation, and he felt it really transformed him as an actor and to some extent as a person. Of course, he had a lot of it.

We use a series of exercises that are based on the work of someone named Viola Spolin, who was a theater educator in the 40s and 50s in Chicago out of a school that then led to Second City. She did a lot of work not just with actors but also with teachers and school children, applying these exercises in different ways.

The basic idea of it is that it’s really an exercise in paying attention to the other person. A lot of it is about paying attention and trying to imagine what the other person is thinking. Focus on the other person, rather than on what you’re saying.

Marc:  Paying attention?

Liz:  Just to give you an example, some of the exercises are very simple and are almost purely like paying attention exercises. For instance, say you and I are doing one of these. You just start talking about anything. You’re talking about movies you saw—anything—and I just have to repeat your words as close to simultaneously as I can.

So basically, I’m looking at your mouth. I’m trying to imagine if you use a phrase, what the next word would be.

People get really good at this. It sounds almost like stereo. People can get so close, but it’s really mostly “Now I’m really paying attention to you in a different way.”

Or there’s very simple things like these mirror exercises.  Again, two people are facing each other. One person is moving, and the other person has to mirror their gestures. Then, the leader changes.

You can even tell people to close their eyes and see how closely they can mirror each other. You might say, “How can you mirror someone with your eyes closed?” It’s because you’ve been paying so much attention to them that you can imagine what they’re going to do next.  Sometimes it’s amazing how close people are.

Marc:  So the acting skills you’re teaching are all about listening and paying attention. That’s funny because you’d think scientists are all about observing nature. We should be good at paying attention! But, maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re not good at paying attention to people.

Liz:  That’s interesting. You would think you’d be. A certain kind of paying attention you’d think scientists would be very good at.

Obviously, there’s certain kinds of people that are particularly good at paying attention, like you would think an elementary school teacher might be really good. Nurses tend to be really good at this often, if they’re good nurses. This is what they do day in and day out: listen to people and try to make judgments about “how sick is this person really” from the way they’re talking.

I don’t know that scientists are necessarily worse [than average]. I do think from my experience, that especially with a lot of young scientists, they are schooled that they’re not supposed to be personal. They’re not supposed to bring much of themselves to the way they communicate.

Marc:  Right.

Liz:  I remember one student who—he was very good at our science communication classes—and he came back after a while and said how he had some presentation coming up and he had run through it as a trial run for his mentor. It was very good, but he was told he really needed to be drier. So, it was like he was applying too much of our stuff.

Marc:  Isn’t there a contradiction between improvising, which is making things up on the spot, and sending a message that you’ve already distilled?

Liz:  Well, improvising isn’t really making things up. You wouldn’t just make up something that wasn’t true. It’s really responding. The way we do it, it’s really responding to the other person and trying to pay attention to what they need and what they’re understanding. That can be very useful in an interview situation, because you’re more attuned to the person you’re talking to. You may perceive without them even saying anything when they’re not understanding you or when they may be misinterpreting what you say. Then, you can correct that or deal with it right on the spot.

It is a balance depending on the situation. For instance, if you were in an interview that was extremely sensitive, dealing with really controversial and sensitive material obviously, you might want to be more scripted, frankly. Scientists tend to think that the press is a lot more hostile than it is, and every interview is a disaster waiting to happen, and they’re going to be tripped up and tricked and that kind of thing. The vast majority of media interviews are not at all like that. They’re really friendly.