Comedy and the art of STEM communication

Effective communication is key to engaging with audiences but delivering the message is an art in itself, writes Benjamin Page

Bec Hill

Bec Hill makes a compelling case. It often feels as if we – as a global community – are sleepwalking into an oblivion of our own making despite being well aware of what we face when it comes to issues such as climate change. The missing link, according to Hill (pictured left), is communication, and that is where her comedy should be taken seriously.

An often-overlooked challenge for engineers is that of communicating their visions to a less technically-minded audience and when it comes to a field such as climate engineering, the issues are so far-reaching and nuanced the difficulties are magnified. Hill believes comedians such as herself have an important role to play in making such topics more accessible and understandable.

Science communicator Timandra Harkness

“I would argue that art is the communication of an idea and it’s all very well having the science but if you can’t communicate it properly then it is useless,” said the Australian co-host of The DesignSpark Podcast, which explores modern tech from a comedy perspective.

“We need to see a real coming together with the arts for us to see these major changes happen because climate change is getting to such a critical point. It’s going to be more than just the invention of a machine that pulls carbon out from the air. It’s going to be policy and lobbying and education and all of that is communication, it is about getting people on board and getting them understanding the situation.”

Hill is able to offer a unique perspective. She is best known for her more artistic work, recently showcasing her flipchart “paper puppetry” on The Jonathan Ross Show. But she was drawn into the STEM fields through her involvement in projects such as Bright Club, an initiative started at UCL in 2009 to teach researchers stand-up comedy in order to improve their ability to engage with an audience. In Hill’s case, it has worked in reverse – pulling her creative talents into the more technical sphere.

“I wasn’t a science kid,” says Hill. “I never really got into it until I ended up meeting people in STEM through comedy. That’s where I got accidentally pulled into this world of science and technology. I found a new passion for it because it is now being explained to me in a way that best fits my learning style.”

Professor Lucy Rogers

One of her two co-hosts on The DesignSpark Podcast, Professor Lucy Rogers (pictured left), has made the contrasting journey from industry into the comedy world in her search for fun ways to get people tickled by tech and engaged in engineering.

“Engineers are not renowned for their communication skills,” admits Prof Rogers, a chartered engineer and visiting professor of comms and creativity at Brunel University who has gone to great lengths to ensure she is not “boring herself senseless”, including enrolling in comedy classes and becoming a judge on cult BBC show Robot Wars. Part of her role at Brunel is to teach “tools and tricks” to help students communicate better. And working alongside Hill and musical comedian Harriet Braine, an art and history graduate, has given her an even greater understanding of how engineers can alter their perspective to communicate their ideas more widely.

“It has made me realise very much that not many people think like me,” says Rogers. “Working in industry with a load of engineers, you are all logical, you like to follow A, then B, then C and see the progression. People who don’t have that mindset, who are generally more creative in the work that they do, it is interesting to say, ‘OK, how are you looking at this because what I’m saying is not getting the point across – what can I do or say that puts it in your language?’.”

In the show, which is about to record its third series, the three hosts each offer their own unique viewpoints. Braine (pictured below) made her name writing songs about artists but coming on board for the podcast turned her attention towards pioneering women such as computer scientist Ada Lovelace and actor/inventor Hedy Lamarr. Touring these songs, she was delighted to discover they had such an appeal to comedy fans.

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Harriet Braine

“It resonated with a lot of people,” says Londoner Braine. “I ended up talking to a lot of women in science or teaching fields. It really grabs people who are in that world because they are actively looking for stuff within their specific area of interest. It didn’t exclude everyone else, either, and a lot of people who didn’t know anything about any of the women I talked about said, ‘Now I appreciate something I didn’t know before’.”

Hill’s passion for environmental issues was piqued when researching for a stand-up tour about where society is headed and being struck by “the overall hopelessness of the situation”. She describes her approach as “coming at it from a childlike perspective”, adding: “I guess you could say It’s almost the Millennial view. A lot of my questions are, ‘How does this serve me, why should I care?’.”

Prof Rogers knows the value of targeting people’s basic instincts to make them sit up and take notice, while stealthily slipping in the technical stuff. She recently made a video that went viral – generating more than a million views on Twitter – in which she reinforced the importance of handwashing during the coronavirus crisis.

“I like to sneak science into the public consciousness without them really knowing by sliding it in under the fun,” says Prof Rogers, who mixed pepper, water and oil to demonstrate how soap breaks down the fat that holds the virus together in the minute-long video originally released on TikTok. “Scientists are telling us to wash our hands [and people think] ‘Come on, it’s an ordinary thing that is in all our houses, it can’t possibly be the answer’. You can say it until the cows come home but it only really appeals when you see that demo and think, ‘Oh, soap is the answer’.”

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The DesignSpark team

The same approach, Prof Rogers argues, can be applied to large-scale projects such as geoengineering, which is one of the topics covered in the new series of the podcast. The message must be clear and simple, she says, and any changes people need to make must be unambiguous. She admits, though, the current debates surrounding the effects of climate engineering make this a difficult challenge.

“We have only got one earth, so if we start faffing about with the climate and we get it wrong, it’s going to be horribly wrong for a lot of people,” she says. “However, there are only so many simulations and small models you can make before you have to start doing something big. What’s the worst-case scenario if I go and plant a thousand trees? Actually, that’s not a bad thing. Whereas building a giant machine or making the oceans less acidic is harder to do on a small scale. It is very difficult knowing what’s right.

“On a personal level we are all selfish and we don’t like to change how our life is. You can say, ‘If you do this, the world would be a better place’ but it is hard to convince people to make lifestyle changes – drive less, fly less, don’t go on holidays abroad. It’s like telling people not to buy toilet rolls, and yet everybody still goes and buys toilet rolls.”

Take your mind off Covid-19 by listening to series 1 & 2 of The DesignSpark Podcast on iTunes or at www.designspark.com/podcasts