Tim Essington is a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, and over the years has become an avid supporter of building SciComm skills through improv. His dedication has not only helped him deliver a wickedly funny comedy show, but has also sharpened his approach to science, his teaching and how he talks about his work.

Aquatic and Fishery Sciences' Tim Essington.
Aquatic and Fishery Sciences’ Tim Essington.

First of all, what is improv and why is it interesting to you?

Improv is performing without a script or plan or safety net in any way. The creative process becomes the product, which distinguishes it from scripted acting.

Getting involved at first was a complete accident. My wife is a physician and went to a professional conference where one of the workshops was put on by Second City under the premise of using improv to help treat people who have anxiety issues, or how to be a better physician, or whatever. She loved it. So, she came back and she said, “Tim, we’re going to do improv.” And I went, “What?” And I said, “Okay.”

So we took a class, then another and another. And the more I took, the more excited I got about it. I loved the weekly challenge of going way out of my comfort zone and being able to come through on the other side ok. That was so good for me and I began to see it show up in my day-to-day life.

So how does it show up in your day-to-day life, as a scientist and educator?

I began to see those skills in my teaching, in my ability to be more engaged in meetings by really listening to somebody. It has reshaped one of the courses I teach – I let the students tell me what they want me to focus on, instead of me coming with a prepared lecture. Knowing I don’t have to control every single thing, that I know the stuff and if I goof it up this time, I’ll clean it up in the next class.

The same goes for giving a professional presentation or interviews. I don’t have to do it perfectly. I think as scientists, one of the ways we want to be good at our job is by being perfect in what we say. But that gets you in your head, and you’re not interesting at all. We’re interesting when we talk like we do when we’re talking to our best friends. In a conversation, you are paying attention to who you’re talking to and you can read how people are reacting. No matter what that reaction is, you could have a positive reaction or a corrective action in response to that.

Has improv shaped your science or how you approach your research?

Yes. One of the central tenants of improvisation is this idea of “yes, and” which basically means as you’re doing a scene and you come up to me and you say, “Hey, I’m your Dad and we’re going to a car wash today.” I agree with you and then I build upon that. That framework is a very useful framework for creative idea generation in general. As scientists, we’re often very quick to just start with “no” or ”prove it”. And whether it’s my own ideas or in a group brainstorming, that basic idea creates an environment where everyone feels like they can say what they want to because they’re not getting shut down all the time.

What has been the greatest skill you’ve gotten from improv?

I think it’s confidence probably more than anything. It’s not as though I was an unconfident person, but now I just go into certain situations without having to plan every I-dotted and T-crossed and have confidence that I’m going to get through the other side. That’s a very relaxing place to be. Another big thing about improv is you have to be a very good listener. I think I’m now able to be more present. I’m not in a meeting thinking about what I’m going to do afterward, or the email I’m going to send. I’m locked in a lot better.

What’s one of the things that’s surprised you the most about doing this kind of work?

One thing I didn’t realize initially was how much my nerdy science brain enjoys chewing on problems in an artistic space by really trying to figure out, “Why did that land? Why did that work? Or why did that not work?”. It’s fun having the different parts of my brain talk to each other.

What do you think people either have to either embrace or check at the door if they’re going to be successful in improv?

The biggest one is getting rid of that fear of doing things wrong and responding genuinely in the moment. I think the only way to do that to get out of your head, completely. As scientists trying to convey information, first and foremost that’s your goal. But you’re also trying to take advantage of the fact that people’s brains receive information in different ways. It’s usually not the way we default to as scientists. So, I think the most important thing is actually acting like a normal human being when you’re conveying that information. You don’t have to suddenly turn off who you are as a person to convey a particular set of scientific knowledge.

Anything else you’d like to cover that we didn’t?

One worry that I have is that there’s a perception of [improv techniques] being for people who are starting from a deficit, especially for people who are particularly anxious or nervous. While I do think it’s really helpful for those people, I think that even the most outgoing person can learn a lot. It’s basically just teaching you how to be more engaging in person. So, I think unless you are someone who everyone routinely comes up to and says, “You’re the most engaging speaker I ever saw,” then you would probably benefit from this type of training.

Tim and professional improv instructors offer a 2-credit course for graduate students each autumn. The College of the Environment also provides opportunities for faculty and postdocs to learn improvisational techniques with Tim and improv instructors. The next offering will be in Winter Quarter 2020. Contact coenvcom@uw.edu for more information.