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 Maybe this is because of an outdated tradition or a scheduling system you do not fully understand?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.