Communicating science through comedy and storytelling

There are two main barriers for scientists communicating their work to the public:

  1. the prestige and elevation of the positions we hold at Universities or the Met Office can be intimidating to the general public (although our knowledge is respected), and

  2. the language we use is often filled with jargon and expert knowledge.

Rather than trying to tell the general public about your job and specific area of science, your role in general climate communication using comedy is to be an accessible messenger of general climate information. In doing this it is key to:

  1. show you’re human,

  2. talk about yourself even to the point of self-deprecation (can be very amusing)

  3. not talk down to your audience, and

  4. bring people into everything (this makes it relatable).

Doing these things will help your audience engage in what you’re talking about. Everyone likes to be entertained and learn something. You make it easier for your audience to learn when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. The goal is to engage people and make a connection with you as a person early.

For a topic such as climate change, people have strong opinions. If they deny the science, it is more realistic to not try to convince them to change their minds then and there, but it is more effective to think of your job as trying to soften their view. You probably won’t change their mind that day, but if you’re lucky you might start to break down some misinformation they regard as factual.

When talking to the general public, it is important to talk about shared experiences and invite people to take individual action. Most of your audience likely cares about the climate, but does not know much about it, and does not know how they can make a difference. Examples of individual action include changing their energy provider to a green energy company, eating less meat, or walking more rather than driving. Small actions do help motivate people to in time make larger changes such as putting solar panels on roofs, getting smaller cars or not flying.

Tips for speaking about climate change:

  • Tell jokes and have fun but don’t make fun of climate change.

  • Dark humour can be fun when the right person uses it, it can be very effective. But Climate change is already a dark topic, so be cautious or even avoid dark humour about it unless it is a style to which you are naturally experienced using for comedy.

  • Health and food security are good ways of talking to people about climate change. It is easy to understand and the impacts are personal rather than abstract.

  • Write the talk first, then try to make it funny. It is too hard to think of jokes first and then arrange the talk around it.

  • Most of the jokes you come up with you won’t use (80-90% you won’t use). But you need to work on it to find the right ones that do work. Almost all of Matt’s jokes are planned, only very infrequently are the spontaneous.

  • Newspapers are a great place to find material to talk about. There are very few people who can give a general science talk on their area of research. You need to know a little bit about a lot of things. Newspapers have already removed a lot of the technical jargon so it is a good entry point (do still read the papers though as the media do sometimes misrepresent scientific findings, and consider how reliable the science journalism of the paper that you are reading is. Carbon Brief is an excellent place to start for accurate climate journalism.).

  • Ask yourself: If I knew nothing about climate change, what would I need to know?

  • If you have energy and are engaged in the material, your audience will enjoy it more.

  • If you want to get better at public engagement, do it often. It is very hard to be a good communicator if you only do it once a year. If you are specifically interested in comedy, attend comedy clubs to get lots of experience hearing different comedians, and to try it yourself!

An example exercise – Write a sentence about your job. Then in a follow up sentence, diffuse your expertise with humour. An example from our member Karina Williams: “I grow plants in computer simulations of the planet, which makes it even more embarrassing how messy my garden is.”

A big thank you to Matt for leading the workshop and to Kirsten Lees for the event idea and managing the logistics of the event.