Monday, 28 April 2014

Bright Club Glasgow: Academics hit The Stand Comedy Club to present their research

As a researcher, I routinely find myself standing on front of strangers discussing my research. I have been to plenty of workshops on public speaking over the years and one of the ‘golden rules’ when presenting to an academic audience is ‘DON’T TRY TO BE FUNNY’. I disagree. I think it’s a case of gauging your audience and if it suits your natural rhythm to approach your topic humorously, then go for it. The goal is to engage the audience. Information which is encoded semantically, or more meaningfully, is retrieved more efficiently later. In other words, don't be boring - people won't remember what you were talking about.

And so, when I heard about a bunch of academics who present their research in a Comedy Club in Glasgow? Naturally I got quite excited. 

Bright Club was born in University College London in 2009, with the idea of engaging with the public. The recipe took off in a big way and ‘Bright Clubs’ starting popping up all over the country, hitting Edinburgh in 2011. I spoke to Bright Club Glasgow’s Founder Zara Gladman, between rehearsals for the upcoming Glasgow show, to get the scoop. 

Zara got involved on the first Edinburgh event and enjoyed it so much she approached The University of Glasgow to help fund a Glasgow event later that year. Zara recalls 6 academics performing at the first show: “Which spanned a range of subjects, from maths and engineering to marine biology, tissue engineering and economics”. She notes more recent shows have: “Covered everything from beetle sex to Burns poetry”. 

Over the last few years, the group has gone from strength to strength, with support from veteran comics on the circuit like Bruce Morton and from Tommy Sheppard, who runs The Stand Comedy Club. Part of the success may be down to the audiences themselves. Zara explains that the shows are strictly heckle-free, with audiences well aware that performers are not professional stand-up performers and are in most instances in unfamiliar territory for the very first time. Even thinking about it makes me nervous!

Academics are obliged to report their research in various ways, mostly in written form in books and academic journals. Often inaccessible to the general public, presentations are a more interactive way to reach out to audiences (and blogs and resulting 'altmetrics' are becoming more valuable). Zara explains: “Public engagement is a growing priority for universities – it’s good for the public to know about some of the amazing research happening right on their doorstep”. I couldn't agree more.

Reflecting on past successes like a themed show about Scottish Independence, and looking ahead to a show at the Glasgow Science Festival this year on June 9th at The Admiral (with biologist and TV presenter Simon Watt hosting) the breadth of the expertise across the individual contributors for the April event looks to be very eclectic indeed. A testament to the worthwhile research from academics from all over Glasgow, I’m excited at the prospect of Bright Club Glasgow and look forward to the upcoming event to see what it’s like for myself. 

In the past, many (but certainly not all) of my talks have went down a treat at conferences and other events. It sort of depends on the audience really. I often poke fun at the weak research methods used in piracy studies or the different justifications people forward to appease piracy engagement, etc. It usually raises a smile at the very least. Maybe I will give it a shot in the future. I'm less interested in the idea of getting laughs though and more that you have an audience who are all there for one reason (and who won't leave halfway through your talk to go see someone elses...)

Anyone can come along on the night, and tickets are available from The Stand website.

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