“Researchers can learn a lot from improvisers. They are all exploring the unknown,” says scientist and communication coach Samuel Lagier

For three rather rainy days in June, teachers and PhD students of Masaryk University had the opportunity to attend the first communication trainings with a foreign lecturer after loosening of restrictions following the covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Samuel Lagier came to share his experience of connecting improvised comedy with science.

24 Jun 2020 Hana Poledníková

You’ve had a successful career in academia, publishing papers, doing 2 postdocs. When was the moment when you realised that you would like to focus more on communicating the research than actually creating it?
There was a point in my academic career where I got tired of the system. I was happy with the job and not happy with the environment. It was very clear that as the end of second postdoc was approaching, I would not want to continue in that direction. In my work life, I am a scientist and that’s who I am. But for other times, I’m an improviser. And for me they were separate universes. It took me a while to understand what the benefit of bringing these together was and how I could indeed make something out of it. There was one particular moment where I realised that was it. It was after a full day of teaching communication skills to researchers. I was walking back to the train station and I realised that I was not thinking about research anymore. I was thinking more about teaching and ways to teach and I was more excited about this aspect than research. And it was like flipping a switch.

You connected your love for theatre and improvisation with scientific research. How is that possible?
There is truly a lot of parallels between science and improv. It is not necessarily intuitive, and a lot of people put science and improv, arts in general, very far from science. Once you start digging a little bit, you start to realise that both science and improv, are explorations of the unknown. You start a process not knowing where you’re going to end. And from this perspective, I think there’s a lot that researchers can learn from improvisors. In improv, we know that when we’re onstage and we don’t know what’s going to happen, it is very scary. When we are on stage, there’s a big part of improv which is building a team. Building a supportive group and making sure that all the individuals feel that they are in a safe environment. Which is something that we don’t do in research. And it’s a terrible mistake. I think a lot of issues that especially young researchers face is because of anxiety. A lot of problems that they have like anxiety are all coming from lack of support and from lack of understanding that yes, they are placed in the unknown.

The other aspect is creativity. Funnily enough, often times when I work with scientists, I ask them “are you creative?” And a lot of them say no! To me, that’s nonsense. Because if you’re doing research, by definition you are creative. You cannot be a successful researcher if you’re not creative. Just the process of making new connections and gathering knowledge, understanding something that nobody else understands, to me, that’s highly creative process. So once again, there is a clear benefit for scientists to practice improv. To develop this sense of creativity and acknowledge that they’re creative and not be afraid of the joy of coming up with new ideas.

In 2017, you presented at a conference in Geneva about Emotions in Science and you mentioned that even though “the conduct of research is emotional, emotions are rarely spoken about in science”. Do you feel like it’s an important topic to talk about among researchers?
Yes, and that connects to what I mentioned earlier about anxiety. There is a lot of that is being done and I think that there is more that needs to be done in creating support for young researchers. Emotions, most if not all, are behaviours. There is an apparent conflict in research –⁠ we are emotional beings and yet the output of science should be objective. And we never discuss about how we make this happen.

I think in every workplace, emotions are something we don’t talk about. And yet it influences all our interactions. A lot of tension at work could be managed better if there were safe spaces for people to say plainly how they feel. I remember talking with a colleague and he was saying that one thing that he does is start every meeting by asking the people how they feel. What is their emotional state at the beginning of every meeting? Because it differences how the meeting is run.

How did your academic specialization help you with your current work? Do you use neuroscientific studies in your seminars?
Funnily enough, not a lot. Maybe I do but without knowing it. I will always be a scientist. In all the topics I teach, I’m always curious to dig what is new and what is happening. So, what I’m exploring is maybe more the interface of neuroscience in psychology than just purely neuroscience. It probably helps me to have a set of skills in neuroscience. I use it probably more than I know.

During your seminars, you used quite a lot of movement exercises, the teachers were not just sitting behind their desks. Why is it important?
When I was growing up, I’ve sat in classrooms for hours and hours. And I don’t think it’s a very efficient way of acquiring knowledge. It’s been now number of years that I’ve practiced experiential learning where you basically place participants in a situation and you ask them to say or do something and you guide them through steps of self-reflexion. If you consider that learning is making something yours then if the material is something the participants experienced themselves, then it’s a lot easier for them to make all the right connections. Then physicality - we also learn with our bodies. And the third element is play. When you play, you are a lot of likely to learn. If you make it fun, your brain is more susceptible to take in information.

You also coach TEDxLausanne speakers since 2012. They all seem so confident while getting their point across. Do you come to them or they come to you?
We come to them. We don’t leave them the choice. If they want to talk at our conference, then they will need to be coached. We do a lot of work on the content of their presentations. They bring their ideas and then we work with them on shaping their talk, making sure that there will basically be an impact. For example, one of the speaker’s talks was about fifteen minutes, usual TED format, and we worked for seven hours one-on-one. That does not include all the time he spent writing his talk and it does not include the time I spent reading and making comments on the document. By the time they arrive on the stage, they know their text by heart, and we make sure of it. We’ve placed them in a situation where there was very little left to chance. And a lot of them actually thank us for that because it’s true that for a lot of conferences, people will not practice as much.

What is the first thing you suggest them to do?
The first step is finding out what is the one message that they want to convey. What is the idea worth spreading? Then after we go into organizing the ideas, drafting an outline, then the speech itself. That’s about the structure of the content. Then for the delivery, and it’s probably the hardest step, is reaching authenticity. And to me the key here is to tell them to enjoy it. During the last steps of the process, we tell them to forget about all they have worked on before and enjoy it. You’ve worked very hard and we’ve made sure you’re ready so now let your heart speak. It’s easy to say but it’s not easy to do.

Has something shifted in your way of coaching since the covid-19 pandemic? 
A lot of my colleagues switched to teaching about how to run online meeting, how to give online talks. That is not something I’ve done and not something I’m interested in developing. Because of my experience and love for acting, I love the human interaction. I love being with someone, interacting, discussing, observing. And it’s very hard to recreate that. The level of participation is dramatically reduced as soon as you put a screen between two individuals. I think that it is important for people to understand that yes, there are number of meetings or interactions that they can have with people far away through a screen. And in terms of reducing our environmental impact of teaching, conferencing, and research, then it’s a good thing that more things are online. But personally, that’s not something I’m looking forward to.

So it is possible to learn something about presentation or communication skills through webinars?
It is possible but I think you will never be able to replace the feeling of having a real audience in front of you. And the stress that is associated with it. For some people it’s stress, for others it’s a thrill. So far, we don’t have the technological tools to recreate that. So sure, we can teach individuals how to structure their presentation and we can teach them how to use their voice, use their body language and adapt that to the medium of online communication. But the contact with your audience is something vastly different in a situation where you’re online and in a situation in person.

One of your workshops focused on Announcing bad news and you started with “adopting certain mindset when communicating bad news”. What does it mean?
When we announce bad news, often times we are not comfortable and that’s normal. This discomfort affects the way we behave. Negative emotions make us retract within ourselves. And make us less open to the other person. If you want to make it easier on you as the person announcing the bad news, it is important to understand your behaviour and the reason why you behave the way you behave. People often have clumsy way of dealing with their own discomfort. And they will say “I’m doing this for the other person” whereas what they’re actually doing is for themselves. The person receiving bad news is a lot more distressed than the person announcing the bad news. So it’s basically telling the participants in a way to forget how you feel, go straight to the point, announce the bad news as neutrally as possible and yes, the person in front of you will react with anger, with distress, with shock, disbelief, denial, lots of different ways. And the role of the person announcing the bad news is to leave space to the person.

From a neuroscientific perspective and taking in consideration years of coaching, do you feel any changes in people’s concentration in this era of the constant flow of information from everywhere?
No, I don’t see it in what I do. In terms of coaching, what I do relates very much to something very primitive about our human nature. We behave in very stereotype manners and whether we live in a world of information, it does not affect so much those primitive behaviours. Then in terms of science communication, yes. There is a lot more information out there, a lot more noise. It’s harder for scientists to be heard and to convince politicians and convince the general public. So, I think it’s a part of what I teach. There is a component that is warning young researchers or established researchers, giving them tools to understand what are the basics of communication in this society of information. And especially hard scientists have not been trained to craft impactful stories. The currency of a hard scientist is "the fact". And in our current society, you would find plenty of examples, and I mention UK and US without going into further details, there are plenty examples in which saying and announcing facts is not leading you anywhere. And that the discourse of success is sometimes very far from the objective reality. We are all experiencing it and it’s mind-blowing. I’m working to give scientists some clues how they can contribute to it in efficient and ethical way.

Could it be because in the times of social media, anyone can say anything?
It’s a good thing that people can express themselves and can access information. We don’t want to go back to society where we control what people say and only give voice to people who have been approved. But the age of freely circulating information is revealing all the biases we have in understanding and believing information. Another concept that we don’t talk about much in research is the notion of belief. There is a certain set of ideas or concepts that we take for truth, we believe in it and we don’t question it anymore. People go and read information and because of their biases they will say “oh that fits with my world view and I will consider that this is the truth”. And fighting belief is very hard. Fighting with your own belief is hard and fighting with someone else’s belief, that is extremely hard.

During one of your seminars you said „Knowledge is useless if you don’t share it.“ And it sounds like your motto.
Yes, for sure. Passion has always been my driver. I’m curious and passionate about things and that’s why I want to gain more information. That’s why I want to share it. Because if I’m just excited about, let’s say making beer, if I become an expert in making the best beer in the world and I’m not sharing it with anyone, what’s the point? I’m going to be happy drinking my beer on my own but it’s going to be sad. It’s very powerful, rewarding and satisfying when you’re passionate about something to share it. And I think it’s the same with knowledge.

What are your next steps in sharing passion for sharing knowledge then?
Very concretely my next step is to train someone else to work with me. Then there is another very practical step, which is writing a book. I have two book ideas, one is about science communication, giving some form of handbook or manual to researchers about learning how to craft talks. The other is about science in improv. It’s standing on what I’ve learned and it’s gonna be with the intention of spreading this passion.

Dr Samuel Lagier is a communication trainer, coach, and comedian. He runs SamSpeaksScience, dedicated to help researchers talk about their work. Sam joined the TEDxLausanne team and he brings storytelling to experts. He holds a PhD in neuroscience and his 15 years of scientific research and has over 13 years of experience with improvised comedy.

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