Jokes In Science Presentations #2: Know Your Audience

While there are many factors one should consider when preparing to tell a joke during a scientific presentation, few are of more importance than knowing your audience. To clarify, I do not mean that you should know or be friends with every single audience member, although that certainly would make your task easier.  Rather, you should have your audience at the forefront of your mind when you are giving the presentation and orient your talk to them. This same logic applies to the scope of your talk itself (i.e. how much background information to give, what jargon to use, etc.).

In the scientific community the most common presentations are lab/group meetings, department seminars, and conference talks. The audience in each of these talks is an important constraint that can vary drastically and, thus, so should your jokes. A general rule of thumb is the better you know your audience, the more material you will have to create your jokes. Just think of which is more recent, the last time you made one of your friends laugh versus the last time you made a random stranger laugh. In other words, think of it as “Knowledge is Power” except more like “Knowledge is Humor”.

Let’s see how “Knowledge is Humor” works in a department seminar.  Depending on the size of your department you may know some proportion on a first name basis or you may not have the faintest idea. Likewise, you may be quite familiar with the department culture or you may be oblivious to its traditions and idiosyncrasies. Continually work to increase your knowledge in these areas as they are all fertile ground in which to develop your jokes.

For example, last year my advisor received a special award in recognition of his “outstanding contributions to teaching, scholarship, and service”. As he is already an endowed professor and chair of the department, one could argue this additional honor made his full title extremely long. As such, several members of the department poked fun at how many awards he had received or feigned confusion as to how to address him.

I formalized this joke in my department seminar by having my title slide initially state that I worked in my advisor’s lab, listing only his first and last name. I then began my presentation by looking embarrassed and quickly confessed that I had made a typo on my title slide, an inexcusable error. Before the audience grew frustrated at searching for a typo that did not exist, I advanced to the next slide, which was identical to the first…except that I had now added every endowment and fancy title that my advisor had been awarded to his name on the slide. Some laughter ensued and the seminar was off to a solid start.

Because I knew my audience (the department) was familiar with my advisor’s award, this was a reliable starting point to build a joke for a department presentation. I also knew that my advisor would be in the audience. This is important because if he were not present, some could view this joke as a mean spirited attempt to make fun of him behind his back…never a good idea. Finally, I knew that my advisor has a good sense of humor and can handle a joke at his expense in a department setting. Take all these pieces of knowledge away and the joke disappears right along with it. Know your audience and sooner or later, you will know your joke as well.

The JISP of it: Know your audience and the jokes will follow.

Jokes In Science Presentations Lesson #1: Navigating Constraints With Ease

It might seem ironic that my first blog on making Science Jokes is to talk about constraints. Isn’t making a joke during a science presentation all about deviating from these traditional limitations? Breaking the rules? An act of defiance? Perhaps. However, to be successful, science jokes often must navigate a whole host of constraints that can loosely be classified into two distinct categories: internal constraints and external constraints.

Internal constraints are what I call any (perceived or real) personal limitations in our ability to give a presentation. These include bad public speaking habits like saying “um”, swaying, poor eye contact, and excessive pacing. They also encompass more subtle traits such as feeling a lack of confidence or being nervous. The other (and substantially larger) group of constraints that we face in preparing jokes in science presentations are external constraints. These include the time limit of our presentation, who are audience is, the size of the audience, the location of the presentation, the dress code, etc.

The good news is there is a lot we can do to navigate these constraints. Instead of trying a one size fits all approach, I try to resolve my constraints with Es (ease…yay puns! Rarely can I resist). Specifically, I choose to eliminate, exploit or encounter my constraints based on what I think will be most effective.

I find that the elimination strategy works very well for internal constraints. If you struggle with confidence or making eye contact, practicing with your peers should help address the issue. For trickier public speaking issues, attending a workshop or class on how to be an effective communicator could be a great resource.

Sometimes it is not possible to eliminate constraints or it might take substantial effort to do so. In these situations I may try to exploit the constraint instead. Maybe you are required to give your departmental seminar in the same room every year. Maybe this is because of an outdated tradition or a scheduling system you do not fully understand? Either way, you know that sooner or later (and it always seems to be sooner) you will be presenting there.

I distinctly remember presenting my departmental seminar in the same room all of the researchers present in. In this particular instance, the room filled up rather quickly as it was the first seminar of the year. Instead of panicking about having a hot, crowded room, I began my talk by acting VERY surprised that so many people would come just to see me and how this was such an HONOR. The impromptu joke received a few laughs and chuckles, while helping put the room at ease. If I had tried to eliminate the constraint by making a last minute room change, I would have had a logistical nightmare on my hands and the constraint would have practically exploited me instead.

Sometimes you will face a constraint that cannot easily be eliminated or exploited. For these instances I simply encounter them. For example, you may have no control over the date of your presentation. It may be on a random Tuesday in the middle of March. Eliminating it probably means changing your date altogether. Exploiting it (barring a notable current event or weather) is probably a long shot. And yes, I realize that merely “encountering” a constraint may not feel as satisfying as eliminating it from existence or exploiting it as a joke opportunity. However, jokes should make up a relatively small portion of your presentation and one of the last things you want to do is force jokes where they don’t belong. Not only will these jokes have a high probability of failure, but they will also detract from the good jokes you have lined up.

The JISP of it: Identify your constraints and then eliminate, exploit, or encounter them as effectively as possible.

Science and Humor

I have attended scientific talks, symposia, and conferences for well over a decade and have seen some incredible presentations. Incredible is a double edged adjective though, as some were incredibly good…and some were incredibly bad. My favorite talks and often times, the favorite talks of my colleagues, were presentations that had two things: 1) an exciting story/data and 2) the right amount of humor.

Scientists love to see new data, contemplate the implications of a novel result, and have it presented in a nice, logical flow. However, an hour long PowerPoint presentation of bar graphs and pie charts, is not usually associated with humor. This is extremely unfortunate as I have yet to meet a single person who does not enjoy a good joke. Never in the course of a conversation has a friend or stranger told me “Walter, I really do not enjoy laughing”. It’s a basic human emotion and it is one of our sincerest expressions of joy and happiness. Thus, finding a way to help integrate appropriate humor into the course of a scientific presentation seems like a very worthwhile endeavor.

When I look back over my career in science, I now realize that I have consciously (and probably even unconsciously) been finding creative ways to combine the seemingly opposing themes of science and humor. I have also recently realized that the very technique of making science jokes, particularly in presentations, is something that people want to do, but also something they find difficult.

In my previous post I discussed how the key to having writing consistently was to create a blog of value. A blog series on how to help people make science jokes in presentations certainly seems to fill a present need and will be viewed as something of value. And because I have been making many (possibly too many) jokes in scientific presentations for the past decade, I have ample experience to help guide others on their way. Shall we begin?

The Pivot

The Pivot

I recently had a brainstorming session about how to develop a more consistent blogging routine. My previous attempts have focused on blogging about something I am passionate about (i.e. board games) or close derivatives of that (i.e. preparing for a board game conference). Yet, while I am certainly passionate about board games and enjoy the hard work of preparing for a board game conference, this has not translated into a very active blog.

After some reflection, I think this is because blogging is a creative act and I want my creations to be of value. I love the board game Alchemists and I love to talk about how much depth and strategy it has. However, I have a hard time imaging most people assigning much value to a few paragraphs of me gushing about a board game that I really like. Likewise, most people will probably not assign much value to a description of my early efforts to prepare for my first board game conference. This is especially true since there are so many great resources out there already on how to prepare for a board game conference.

So, what to do? In research, sometimes you get stuck in a rough patch or find that your approach is not working. During my postdoc this happened and my advisor suggested that we “pivot”. Specifically, we incorporate what we have learned to help us change our approach. For the purposes of this blog, I now needed to identify a topic that I feel like I can contribute something of value to. Ideally, this topic is also be related at least tangentially to Gut Instinct. Neutrophils? Too nerdy. In n Out Burger? Too unrelated. Science jokes during research presentations? Bingo.

There are a number of reasons why I think this topic is a great fit for this blog. However, this…is a blog and the last thing I want is to run out of ideas for entries. In other words, see you next time as I detail why I am so excited about this topic and why I can finally contribute something of value!

Teams. Three.

It's no secret that (most of the boardgaming world and) I love the party card game Codenames. A well worded review by ShutUpandSitDown on how to play and why it's amazing can be found here.  And while I love the game to death, seeing it convert so many of my non-gaming friends into board gamers for a night, the game designer and me likes to tinker away at how to modify the game for different contexts.

On multiple occasions, including a recent weekend retreat with some of my colleagues, Codenames was a classic crowd favorite. However, once more than eight people want to play, the teams start to feel a little bulky. That is probably why on the box it says "2-8+" players and not "2-infinite". And so a problem presents itself: sometimes more than eight people want to play Codenames, but the recommended player range doesn't fit the group size. Thus we can

1. Play with a suboptimal player range and have bulky teams

2. Have players rotate in on different teams


3. Try Codenames with THREE teams.

I am sure there are other possible solutions to rectifying the above problem, but I have found playing Codenames with three teams to be a fairly successful strategy. The three team strategy is easily implemented into a standard game of Codenames. Set up is exactly the same, except that now there is a red team, a blue team, and a beige team, each with a codemaster and field agents. The beige team should either go last and/or have their first turn skipped as they have the fewest clues (7) as opposed to the normal 8 or 9. The first team to identify all of their cards wins.

There are a number of reasons I like to use the three team strategy for groups of nine players or more:

1. Three Codemasters. While I certainly enjoy being a field agent guessing the cards, no game of Codenames that I play feels complete until I have had a chance to be the Codemaster. If I stick to a two team format with nine players, the opportunity to be Codemaster can be rather slim depending on how many games we end up playing. In a three team format with nine players, the odds to be codemaster improve substantially.

2. Quicker Games. While I like the normal length of a Codenames game, some of less passionate board gaming friends comment that the length of a Codenames game can run a bit long. The three team format leads to faster games as everyone incorrect guess pushes another team closer to victory instead of just hitting an innocent bystander. Ultimately, faster games means the other players are happier with the game, which usually leads to playing more Codenames.

3. Epic Finishes. This past weekend we had a three team format of Codenames go down to the wire. Every team had one card left to guess and the assassin. This meant that whatever card the current team guessed would basically decide the game. Everyone was on pins and needles-a crazy mixture of glee, excitement, fear, and anticipation, all rolled into one. These same emotions exist in the two team format as well, but the outcome is binary. In this particular instance, adding a third team/dimension to the game provided a very unique experience. 

New Year's Resolutions for 2018

I hope everyone had a great end to 2017! Those last couple weeks of December are always filled family, fun, and eggnog, but not necessarily in that order, haha. One thing that my family usually does (but we completely missed this year) is sharing our New Year's Resolutions with each other. I like the tradition because 1) my family definitely holds me accountable, 2) it helps put my year in perspective, and 3) it is a great opportunity to tell jokes . Fortunately, this blog can help achieve those very same outcomes,  so without further ado....


Resolution #1: Publish My Paper

This isn't a game related resolution, but nevertheless a very important one. I am in the final stages of writing a manuscript (about neutrophil migration during S. pneumoniae infection) with my advisor and can hopefully we submit after a couple more rounds of revision. Yes, it has taken longer than we anticipated, but now that the end is in sight, it is all the more exciting. As far as game resolutions are concerned...


Resolution #2: Launch the Gut Instinct Kickstarter

Yes, I know, a big surprise. However, considering it was a (very ambitious resolution) New Year's Resolution last year, I am excited to have it back on my list with a far more feasible schedule. The Kickstarter campaign is currently slated to start in late April, however Kickstarter Guru Jeremy Stonemaier advices against holding yourself to artificial deadlines if the project is not ready. Either way, I am confident I am checking this one off the list this year as long as I properly execute my Kickstarter prep, which includes...


Resolution #3: Updating this Blog a minimum of once a week

This resolution will really push me. Setting up this website (another 2017 resolution) was a big step forward, but unfortunately I was not ready for regular blog posts. I have spent some time reflecting on how to make sure I do consistent, regular updates and think following three basic steps will be a huge help:

1. Do not be too ambitious with post length (i.e. max 5 paragraphs) or with post schedule (i.e. the reason this resolution is not "Update this Blog 3 times a week")

2. Write posts at home. This is tricky because sometimes I am en route to meet friends or at lab late, but establishing a firm division between social life, my work, and my blog, will be very helpful in getting me in the "blog writing zone".

3. Make THIS a game. I love games. This seems so obvious now. Post once a week for 50/52 weeks to win. Let's Do This. 

BostonFIG 2017: Top 5 Lessons Learned

BostonFIG 2017 was my first board game festival ever and I absolutely loved it. I met tons of great people, saw a lot of amazing booths, and got to introduce the Boston gaming community to the latest Gut Instinct prototype. All in all, it was an incredible experience and I have every intention of bringing Best Coast Games being back to it next year.

While I never expected everything to go smoothly for the event, I also hoped to not have a disastrous first show. While we certainly had a few hiccups, we still had a relatively good debut. After reflecting a lot about what went well and what...could have been better, I have come up with my Top 5 Lessons Learned from Boston FIG 2017. Below I will briefly summarize each lesson and expand on them in later posts.


5. Preparation X 3

Two weeks prior to Boston FIG I was slightly stressed about having enough time to prepare everything. Two days prior, I felt like the world was going to explode. However long you think you need to prepare for your first board game festival, triple it. Had I built in 3X the amount of prep time, the experience would have been dramatically less stressful and we would have had an even better booth.  


4. Ten Minute Tour

While I enjoyed many aspects of Boston FIG, one of my personal favorites was around 5:10PM. Things were finally starting to wind down, but most of the booths were still up and running. I had been running playtests of Gut Instinct almost non-stop and was completely exhausted. However, this was my first chance to walk around the festival floor and check out the other games. This brief ten minute stroll was refreshing and inspiring to see the diversity and passion of so many other tabletop game designers at the festival.


3. Less Is More

I had drawn various floor plans of my 10'x10' booth to make sure I used the space optimally and so I could answer such exciting questions as: How many chairs? How many tables? How many storage cubes? The answers: 14, 3, 11. Aka: wrong, wrong, wrong. You can draw floor plans all day, but if you have never been to a convention before or physically recreated your actual booth space, you will probably be off. We ended up using 12 chairs, 2 tables, and 2 storages cubes....and even that felt crowded at times. Floor plans help, but they are not a substitute for the real thing.  


2. Less Is More, Unless It Isn’t - 

In preparation for Boston FIG, I talked to friends who had attended the festival in previous years. One of the best suggestions I received was to have a dedicated team member running each playtest session. My team consisted my girlfriend, two good friends, and myself, all of whom were (conveniently) expert playtesters of Gut Instinct. Together, the four of us were able to run two simultaneous playtests of Gut Instinct, pitch the game, give interviews, get food, and have restroom breaks. If I had run this solo or with just my girlfriend, my fate would probably be akin to a character in Ten Candles, whose booth was right next to ours (so cool!). I may be a very social and outgoing person, but that energy is still all contained in one person. Figure out how much help you need and plan accordingly.


1. Funtense

Funtense - /fəntens/ - adjective

i. Something that is simultaneously extremely fun and extremely intense.

Example: I played Game of Thrones the Board Game 2nd Edition and it was one of the most Funtense experiences I have ever had.

Yes, I know Funtense is not a real word, but that's exactly how I would describe Boston FIG. It is not that I expected to have a boring time at Boston FIG. Rather, I was surprised by how dramatic the epicness of it all was. If my boss told me my job was to explain a game to people, I would describe the experience as pretty fun. If my boss turned out to be a powerful wizard and said I had to explain it all day nonstop, I would call that experience pretty intense. Somehow, Boston FIG combines both of those experiences and amplifies the result. To be fair, I am leaving out a lot of other aspects, but if you are showing a game at Boston FIG, that's its beating heart. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, then I highly recommend showing a game at Boston FIG and I may even see you next year! 

BostonFIG 2017: Booth Preparation

Boston FIG 2017 will be my first board gaming convention and I have a fluctuating amount of excitement, nerves, and anticipation for the event. While I expect this will be a truly new and unique experience for me, I am eager to see how this event will compare to many of the science conferences I have attended. Whether preparing a prototype for a game festival or a poster for a science conference, serious preparation is key. This blog entry will focus on several areas of focus for BostonFIG 2017 all centered around…

Booth Preparation

Tackling all of the preparations necessary for a successful booth at a Game Festival can seem (and may very well be) daunting. Conveniently, BostonFIG 2017 has a pretty comprehensive 2017 Exhibitor Kit that provides lots of valuable information on the festival booth preparation, logistics, facilities, etc. Regardless of your festival/conference, be sure to inquire about any documents/materials that can assist you in preparing appropriately. After reading through the Exhibitor Kit I was able to organize my booth preparation into discrete subcategories with brief descriptions and corresponding action items. Below I discuss the subcategories for: Game, Poster, and Newsletter Subscription.


Description: The most important part of your booth at a game festival is…your game. This may seem obvious at first, but when you start to think about all the other things your booth should or could have, it can very quickly become lost in the shuffle. For example, when I first organized this list of subcategories, my game was listed…last. Do not lose sight of what is the most important part of your booth.

Action Items:

-Make six individual prototypes of my game.

-Organize all six prototypes with ziplock bags and rubber bands.

-Make six card boxes for the prototypes labeled with the Gut Instinct logo.  



Description: This will be the key visual and info graphic for my booth. The goal of the poster is to provide the most essential information about my company and game to festival attendees in 30 seconds or less. It will contain the logo for Best Coast Games, the logo for Gut Instinct, my website, and possibly how to play my game in three bullet points. As for the poster material itself, I highly recommend ordering a fabric poster instead of a conventional paper one. Fabric posters are just (if not more) affordable, are washable, easier to transport, and best of all…can be worn as a cape after the festival #capes.

Action Items:

-Make a fabric poster with the most essential company and game information.

-Add creative and fun graphics.

-Order a fabric poster. I use, but there are many options out there.


Newsletter Subscription

Description: One of the key goals of attending BostonFIG 2017 is to create community for Gut Instinct and Best Coast Games. To ensure interested attendees can stay engaged days, weeks, and months after the conference, having a streamlined process for joining the newsletter is crucial. I will have one to two computers available for easy subscription access at the booth.

Action Items:

-Bring one to two computers and their power cords.

-Set-up an excel doc with first name, last name, and e-mail.

-Offer Mail Chimp subscription as backup option only (festival wifi may be unreliable).