Unsolicited advice as a form of dominance

6 04 2011
I’ve just posted a “review” of a show on this blog and also sent it to a news group for science communicators (BIG Chat). One reply I’ve got from the news group is from a chap called Dean Burnett.
Dean is going to be a guest at the Cardiff performance of the show I reviewed and he has kindly offered to pass on my, and anyone else’s, feedback from the previous events to the organisers of the show.
I had never heard of Dean but I thought I’d look him up. On his (very thoughtful and highly recommended) science related blog he has written this:
It’s probably something to do with my comedy background. One of the ways I’ve noticed in which a comedian will try and exert dominance over another is to criticise their performance, and offer unsolicited advice on how to improve. The advice itself is invariably completely subjective and, often, utterly useless, but the group dynamics of these interactions are startlingly clear, as is the thought process involved, for all that it might be completely subconscious.

I’ve lost count of the number of inexperienced (or just plain shit) acts giving unasked for advice to more experienced and much better comedians (based on audience response, not just my subjective views). By giving advice and ‘helpful’ criticism, they are (unjustifiably) asserting their superiority over the better acts in order to reinforce their sense of self worth, but to the detriment of the better acts. The fact that this is presented under the guise of ‘being helpful’ means that social convention often lets them get away with it.

It’s teeth-grindingly infuriating to see this happen as soon as a great but fragile ego’d comic (and there are loads of those, the criticisers can pretty much smell them) walks off stage after a storming performance, only to be rewarded with a volley of ‘helpful’ advice and criticisms. LINK

I really hope that this blog is is not about me “unjustifiably asserting [my] superiority… to reinforce [my] sense of self worth.” But Dean’s comments have given me something to think about. Is my blog really about encouraging people to think more about what they are doing or about me pontificating to prove how great I am?

I’m sure I am pontificating and I’m also fairly certain not many people are reading this but I do think it is important that we become more reflective in our collective approach. If we are honest with ourselves a lot of what we do isn’t as great as it could be (and I include myself in that statement). If we were to compare what we are doing to similar but different endeavours how many of us could say: my science show is as good as that orchestra recital/dance performance/stand-up gig/street performance/etc?

Dean speaks about his experiences as a stand-up comic and they are very valid. We should definitely avoid giving feedback where it is not wanted. But there are very important differences between stand-up comedy and science presenting, that I hope, make this blog and its message both useful and necessary. To put it plainly we all need to get a lot better and this is only going to happen if we start to evaluate and self-evaluate a lot more.

Audiences at a comedy club will let you know if you no good but school kids are under pain of death to keep quiet. Sure they might wriggle a bit but they won’t heckle. They are certainly not allowed to get up and walk to the bar leaving you talking to an empty room. Gigs where we are talking to adults are even less likely to give negative feedback. Adults know that somethings in life are boring and just need to be sat through. Adults don’t even wriggle.

As a comic, in addition to the feedback you get from the audience, there are also professional critics and a language of criticism that doesn’t exist yet in science presenting.

Comedians also have a path to follow and can work their way up through the different levels but science presenters are all currently seen as much of a muchness. You start as a comedian in an open-mic event and people watching will have lowered expectations. You might then be picked up by an agent or be booked to appear on a well-connected circuit. If you are no good you won’t be booked again as comedy bookers share information and comedians who are not improving won’t be promoted to the next level. This hierarchical structure and organised circuit doesn’t exist for us a science presenters. Schools and festivals book on the quality of a website or because of the title of a show. If that presenter turns out not to be no good there is no way to communicate that to other clients. A substandard science presenter (or an organisation who sends out substandard science presenters) can make a good living by good promotion and a nice looking website. They might not be getting many repeat bookings or word of mouth recommendations but there are so many opportunities out there and so few people doing what we are doing it won’t matter.

Finally, comedy is everywhere and it is not difficult to see examples of great comics. Science presenting isn’t everywhere and it is rare to come across any presentations, let alone great ones, even if you look hard. This means that as science presenters we don’t have people to aspire to emulate. We also don’t have people to copy and learn from. But more importantly people booking us don’t have anyone to compare us to.

And this brings us to my number one concern, the real reason behind this blog. If a client sees a poor science presentation they won’t just think that that particular presentation was poor, because there is no way for them to compare shows they will assume all shows will be just as bad. And when large scientific organisations or a famous person from the TV puts out substandard presentations this effect is compounded. The client thinks that surely if a large organisation or TV star is rubbish then how could anyone who isn’t either of those things be any good. This is such a shame as there are some truly amazing presenters and presentations out there.

And how do we get to be amazing? Whether big or small, on TV or not, a famous author or a lowly employee of a science centre, we have to be a reflective and must strive to be as good as we can be.

I really hope that my review and anything else that I write on this blog is not motivated by the need to dominate and doesn’t come across as such. I really hope that if anyone is reading this and they think that what I am saying isn’t valid they comment or email me to let me know. I believe passionately that our young industry could have a wonderful future but that will only happen if we all work to make the field of science presenting as good as it can be.




One response

11 04 2011
Dean Burnett

My blogrant pre-dates our Email interactions by some weeks, so no worries, it’s definitely not a dig at your good self 😉

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