Some insight into agreeing to go on stage and be terrified, for SCIENCE!

Science communication can take many forms. I’ve seen people communicate (or attempt to communicate) science using painting, music, dance, drag, games, exercise classes and even pottery.

This huge diversity leads to some very strange events but also it helps reach a plethora of audiences who might not normally see much science. It is also a good way for scientists to promote science by doing something they are good at, and highlights their alternative skills.

Which is why with very little standup experience and no skill I’ve decided to go communicate science in a one hour show at the Fringe.

Standing on stage and presenting science is something I am very used to doing. I actually can’t count the number of times in a year I have to present some science to an audience of anywhere from 5 to 100 people. It is a fundamental part of my job as an academic.

There is a world of difference between teaching science to mildly bored students forced to be there, and explaining science to an audience that is expecting entertainment.

At a Fringe show I know that I have damned well better be entertaining or I will be eaten alive. And by eaten alive I mean endure audience tutting…. a form of disapproval that makes my English blood run cold. But that’s not even the worse part, the worst part is that I’m expecting myself to be entertaining and I am a terrible critic!

A little earlier this year I tried my hand at science standup via the Science Showoff format. I did a 9 (ended up being about 7) minute talk which was pitched at being ‘science standup’. It was equal parts terrifying and brilliant.

For that I’d written myself a script and tested out some jokes both in my blog and with friends and unsuspecting academic conference attendees. I knew I wasn’t a practiced comedian but my aim was to stand up, have people laugh at a couple of things I say and learn a little about the motivations of scientists.

This plan and my script all went to hell about 30s in to my set.

When I got into my script and set out my first joke to a wall of complete silence and no laughter. When I had very clearly planned to have people laughing here was a room of 50 people looking back at me with faces that said “and?”.

There is no panic like the panic of suddenly realising you’re not as funny and entertaining as you thought while on stage in front of an audience who are there to see you be funny and entertaining.

Obviously I couldn’t stop but while pressing on my brain was screaming, “oh god if they hated that joke, what about all the others!! Quick get to the next joke and check to see if they find ANYTHING funny!”

So in panic I skipped a bit of my talk and hurried on to the next “audience laugh here” bit. And they laughed. Instant validation, I relaxed, everything was fine. It’s okay they just didn’t get that one joke.

Next joke, no laughter… oh god. Cue repetition of the above. Then repeat all this every 30s for the entire duration of my set. It was EXHAUSTING.

From that show I learnt a lot. Firstly how to not have a nervous breakdown live on stage, secondly that I really need to relax. Standing on a stage and entertaining a room full of people is hard and something that some people are naturally better at but something that everyone only gets better at with practice and by doing events that push you that little bit more.

I’m not a comedian, those are some brilliant and dedicated people. I am a scientist that loves making their work entertaining and mildly amusing. Doing events like this is terrifying, but fun. Doing the Fringe is a LONG way outside my ‘being entertaining’ comfort zone but I figure if I keep doing this enough I’ll manage to find a point where I’m as confident about the mildly amusing as I am the science.

If you’re at the Fringe on the 22nd of August, come see how well I’m doing with that balance. But also remember that for at least half the show I’m probably secretly panicking!

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