BRIAN MALOW: What would it take for scientists to become better communicators?

Brian Malow
PHOTO BY DOROTHY PIERCE

When did you start getting into science?

Science has been a passion of mine since an early age, so when I started doing comedy it was natural that my interest in science would inform my style of comedy.

How do people react when you walk up to them at a party or conference and say, “Hi, I’m Brian the Science Comedian?”

(Laughs.) Well, I rarely do that. You know, comics notoriously don’t like to reveal what we do for a living. Part of it is shyness and part of it is people react strangely when they hear you’re a comedian. They put you on the spot and want you to tell jokes. I mean if you’re a lawyer I’m not going to ask you to practice law right in front of me.

There’s a bad taste in some people’s mouths about science comedy, too. Maybe they saw a mixture of science and humor that was kind of corny. Maybe they saw a scientist trying to be funny. I think that a lot of scientists are funny. But not all of them are, I guess.

Why is science communication so important?

There’s this growing awareness that in addition to their regular scholarship, scientists need to be good communicators. Especially since there are so many subjects today – like evolution and climate – where it’s dangerous or depressing how misinformed the public is.

What are some things a scientist could start doing right now to be a better communicator?

In speaking to the public, it’s important to know your audience and be aware that they don’t have all the references you have. It’s also important to not just be you, the scientist, but to reveal some personality. It’s helpful to reveal some of your passion and curiosity and what drew you into science. People want to know why they should care about something. So, a good place to start is to remember why you care about this. It’s not the sort of thing you’d share with a technical audience, but it’s the exact sort of thing to share with the general public.

It’s also important to be prepared so you aren’t reading from a script. You want to be present in order to make a connection.

What would you say to scientists who feel uncomfortable being “under the spotlight”?

Some people get thrown off by being on stage, but we get better at everything with time and practice. What you want is to really be yourself up there and not be afraid to reveal a little bit of personality and passion.

Also, talking to an audience is just like talking to an individual. You want to connect with them. You don’t want to be looking at your slides or down at your paper. Nonverbal communication can sometimes be as important—if not more important—than the actual words you’re saying.

The other thing I really like in terms of communications tools is using analogies, stories and anecdotes. People connect with stories.

It’s almost like scientists have been trained to take emotion out of the equation.

Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate. But I don’t think this means you have to be a Vulcan who’s devoid of emotions. You just have to be able to analyze and look at the science separate from your emotions. When you’re talking to real people, it’s great to be a full, complete human.

Who do you think are the great science communicators of our time, and why?

Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke are still among the best science explainers ever. Today, there are some scientists who are really great communicators. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one. I’ve seen him speak live and he’s like a science comedian, but it never gets in the way of him communicating science. His passion and love of science also comes across all the time. Lawrence Krauss is another one. He’s funny and he’s written a couple books about the science behind Star Trek. Richard Feynman was a hoot, too. You can just tell how much he loved science by the way he talked about it.

Science Comedian BRIAN MALOW

Science and comedy—generally two words you don’t think about in the same sentence, unless your name is BRIAN MALOW.

The self-proclaimed science comedian is making subjects like astronomy, physics and biology cool by entertaining and educating audiences across the country. Along the way, he’s also sharing tips and tricks for scientists interested in becoming better public speakers. So, a scientist walks into a bar …


Extended Interview

Read the extended interview with Brian Malow


VIDEO: Best of Science Comedy from Science Comedian Brian Malow

A short edited reel of the science humor of Brian Malow from performances at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C. And the Punchline Comedy Club in San Francisco. And Rooster T. Feather's in Sunnyvale, too. Watch the video on YouTube