This film has been doing the rounds of late, and while there’s plenty of discussion out there about whether it paints too narrow a depiction of ‘comedy’, I, for one, think it’s a good point well made. Of course there are counter-arguments – comedy wouldn’t be interesting if it could be done in 8 minutes.
The lesson for scicomms is, I think, that detail matters. We obsess about our explanations, but we’re rarely as careful with our transitions (which to my mind are both more difficult and more dangerous), let alone the visual aspects of our performances. Since I cut my teeth in children’s TV this has always baffled me, and Wright’s visual flourishes feel like an extended version of what we too-often failed to do in CITV.
Whatever your medium, the performance your audience perceives is the total of what you say, how you say it, and what happens. Comedy is merely one form of emotional prompt you can deliver: to me, none of this is really about humour or film-making, it’s about the rôle of visual cues in conveying information.
One for our US readers: the American Chemical Society is launching a “Chemistry Champions” search for chemists who excel at performance and communication.
I’ve a bunch of concerns about the competition (judging by number of YouTube views? Really?). Also, their suggested two minutes to talk about your research is an extremely awkward duration – 2:30 is a great length, but 2:00 is on a difficult cusp. My advice to anyone entering would be: write something stellar that’s 90 seconds long. Two minutes will encourage you to try for too many ideas which you won’t, in the end, be able to cram in, so do one thing well, even if it’s shorter.
Anyway, this launch video is terrific. Endearingly low production values show that a great performance shines through regardless, which is exactly the message of the competition. It’s very well judged.
Occasionally I’m drawn in to youtube via links and twists so convoluted that I can no longer remember where I began. That’s how I came across this delightful video of M.I.T.’s Walter Lewin this week:
It’s interesting to see discussions around Lewin and pseudoteaching, but that doesn’t deny his high production values here. Every lecture was, he claims, rehearsed at least three times in full before his first audience was brought in. Clearly, when he decides to do something, he is interested in mastering the art. Even if that art, at first glance, appears mundane.
There are many things that we do that could be tweaked and improved. All we need to do is look at ourselves from the outside occasionally and see what else we can give. If we do something many times during the day, in front of an audience, we may as well learn to do it with finesse. If we’re on a stage, we should deserve it.
Seeing that drawing a dotted line can help make us engaging, memorable and inspirational, perhaps like me, you too want to draw dotted lines like Walter Lewin. You’re in luck.
Or perhaps you’d just like to rock your syncopated head to his dubstep. You can do that too.
Alom and I are filming at the moment, hence things being rather quiet around here. However, the above caught my eye. This demo is typically done with a long length of copper pipe, and the magnet takes many seconds to fall through. It’s effective on a stage.
The tall narrow pipe, however, is precisely the wrong shape to film, and on video the demo doesn’t work so well. This shorter length of fatter pipe, with an appropriate magnet, has more impact on camera.
Same principle, same demo… but different treatments for different audience contexts. So, lessons for us all:
Don’t assume that the way you’ve seen a demo performed is the best way. Always look for improvements.
It’s not just the demo that matters, it’s the way you use it.
That separation of ‘content’ and ‘treatment’ is, for me, an absolutely key concept.
Over the years I have spent a lot of time training science presenters. I’ve seen the best part of a full spectrum: Those calm cucumbers who get up on stage without a second thought, and those who are virtually paralysed with fear. Every time.
I have learned that you can’t always tell the latter from the former with any real degree of accuracy until there are just the two of you in rehearsal before an audience walks in the door. Sometimes the cool ones crumble.
Today, I spent some time in our theatre with a new recruit who will soon start treading the boards for herself. When I started describing the different techniques to keep the jitters in check, perhaps even turn them into a positive force, she told me about this recently uploaded TED talk.
That’s one, mighty clever way to put a positive spin on stage fright.
I suspect many of you who watch the above video will know exactly how it’s done but it’s not immediately apparent to everyone, especially if you choose to present it in a way that isn’t quite honest about what’s going on.
I use this demo in my teaching to introduce the idea that an object will topple over if the line of action of its weight lies outside its base. I usually present it as a challenge: I start off with two identical (apparently) empty drink cans on my desk (yes, I know the ones in the video have slightly different designs). I offer one of the cans to a student and challenge him or her to balance it on the edge of the base. I tell them I’ll try to do the same with the other can. I make a big show of concentrating, then reveal that I have managed to make my can balance while the student’s can keeps falling over (this usually gets a gasp of approval – as I think the video shows, the can balanced on its edge looks quite disconcerting). After the initial surprise at my being able to balance the can, the students usually guess that something’s not quite right.
I think this demo works well presented as a “magic trick” because it captures students’ attention and provokes the question “what’s going on?” or “how does that work?” and that’s when the discussion begins…
UPDATE: I’ve had a couple of responses to this post on Twitter and elsewhere. I should perhaps have said that using this type of approach may not be suitable for all teachers – you have to be comfortable with the way you present a demo to a class and if showmanship isn’t your thing there’s no point forcing it (although I’d argue that this particular demo requires very little in the way of showmanship to present as a “magic” trick). We touch on this issue in our forthcoming film Demo: The Movie.
A teacher contacted me saying it was a shame I didn’t provide an explanation as it would make it easier for teachers to do the demo if they knew exactly how to do it. So, here’s the trick: place a little water in the can you want to balance before your lesson. The easiest way to judge the correct amount of water is to hold the can in the balanced position then pour water into the can until you feel it just balances. Alternatively, you could pour in liquid wax and let that set so that you have a pre-prepared can that you can keep in the equipment cupboard.
Like many science communicators who present demonstrations, I admit to getting a thrill from being able to provoke and orchestrate extreme emotional reactions from my audiences about my subject. The problem is, however, that like any addict, I am driven to want a larger and larger fix. The buzz is intoxicating.
This drive can unconsciously fool us into only valuing the most visible and audible emotional responses from the audience.
Take chemistry shows, for example. Chemistry demos are the shock jocks of the science demonstration airwaves. They viscerally grab attention with their flashes and bangs, but most don’t lead to any meaningful insight into the underlying concepts. Chemistry demos are bewitching to a reaction junkie.
The irony is that I genuinely believe that some of the most powerful audience reactions to live science demonstrations can be the least obvious – e.g. curiosity, wonder, and an intellectual joy of understanding. I’ve spent years of my life researching just this conviction. Yet the overt reaction drug still pulls. That is its danger.
They say admitting it is the first step to overcoming the addiction.
I love this demo, but it’s one of those oddly bimodal ones – you can interact with it in two different ways:
You throw marbles at it yourself, and stare at them. This is delightful, though rarely very informative.
You’re led through a structured exploration by a demonstrator, as here. This is informative, but less delightful.
The challenge for the demonstrator is to balance their audience’s natural inclination to roll the marbles themselves with their inclination to retain control and direct attention. That is: play vs. lecture, or perhaps more appropriately here, interactive exhibit vs. demonstration.
We explore this a little in the forthcoming Demo film, which starts with a candle flame. We all love staring at the flames of an open fire, but we don’t necessarily learn very much about combustion by doing so. How we use a demonstration is perhaps more important than the demonstration itself. That’s certainly the case for teaching, and I suspect also true for storytelling.
Not science. Not a demonstration. But look at the range of ways Wilde says ‘Shut up!’. Impressive.
ScienceDemo blogger Elin Roberts has an exercise/game (once memorably, if incongruously, played in the library of the Royal Institution) called ‘Sandeels.’ The construction is that all participants are puffins, and that puffins have very limited vocabulary and topics of conversation. Specifically, the only thing they ever discuss – and the only word they know – is ‘sandeels.’ Players take a card which specifies an emotion or mood, and have to perform that emotion using only the word ‘sandeels.’ Ian Simmons’ ‘cantankerous’ puffin is a sight to behold.
These sorts of exercises are useful for exploring our range as performers, and they help us think about the details of how we deliver demonstrations.