Don’t Be So Serious with Your Science Videos

Scientists are supposed to be serious…and most of us live up to this expectation.  However, this trait can be quite detracting and frustrating to non-scientists, unless it’s meant to be humorous as in this clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

You might succeed in using such humor, making fun of an egghead speaking on camera.  But in general, this humorous approach is already a cliche, and it would take a really fresh twist to succeed.

In general, a talking head who is pompous or pedantic is going to turn off viewers. The viewer does not want to be lectured to (they got enough of that in school). As a scientist videographer, you will have two choices of (professional) talking heads in your projects:  you or your colleagues.  Both of you likely suffer from the “stuck in their heads” syndrome.  We think too much instead of just doing or saying what comes naturally to other people.  A book called, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist”, by Randy Olson addresses this very issue as it relates to science communication.  Olson has advice for scientist communicators, spelled out in his book chapters:

1. Don’t be so cerebral

2. Don’t be so literal-minded

3. Don’t be such a poor story-teller

4. Don’t be so unlikeable

Olson makes the case in his book that although accuracy is important, it’s even more important to grab the public’s attention so that the science message is heard.  I agree, but that’s easier said than done.

Many of my scientific colleagues are, to put it bluntly, boring on camera (and I include myself in this group).  We are, to borrow Olson’s list:  too cerebral, too literal-minded, poor story-tellers, and generally unlikeable.  It’s rare to see a scientist whose personality attracts rather than repels viewers.  Think Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science communicator:

We can’t all be like Tyson, but we can strive to “get out of our heads” so that we can communicate like the average person.  It’s impossible to change someone’s natural demeanor (and you don’t want to try).  However, we can select our interview subjects carefully so that the message we want to convey is heard and accepted.  If you are uncomfortable on camera and this discomfort is contributing to a poor demeanor, then practice giving interviews.

I was absolutely terrible the first time I was interviewed on camera (at least it felt that way).  The interviewer kept restating my answers in a much clearer and appealing way without scientific jargon and asking, “Is this what you meant?” Although I felt like an idiot at the time, I learned a lot from the experience.  More recently, what has helped me improve my performance in front of a camera is interviewing other scientists.  Seeing how other scientists perform….which ones shine on camera and which ones are dreadful…is an eye-opening experience.  I highly recommend doing a few interviews with your colleagues and then reviewing the footage.  If I were going to teach a science videography course or workshop, that would be one of the exercises.