Coyne of the Realm on the Daily Show and teaching scientific writing

During the recent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I was fortunate to get a ticket to a filming of the Daily Show. I came away with some great insights for teaching my scientific writing course.

14232402_10211124730580979_880852685714409702_nThe Daily Show audience was lead into the auditorium at Annenberg Center hours before the show would begin. Eventually a staffer came out and announced that we were going to be the laugh track for the show. We would be expected to show great enthusiasm on cue. She engaged the audience with a calculated abrasiveness. For instance, she said that some members of the audience might have small gifts for the host Trevor Noah. The staff would later collect them. But if anybody tried to give Trevor a sketch that they had drawn, the staff would ridicule it in the back room without passing it on to him.

Being part of a laugh track is no fun. For many of us, the idea of the laugh track conjures up an obviously canned audience response stuck into sitcoms on TV decades ago. Laugh tracks have mostly fallen out of fashion. Fortunately, this experience was different.

To warm us up, a comedian came out and casually engaged the audience. He would pick out seemingly random people and ask their names and from where they came. He would then instigate a lively exchange, gently poking fun at them and involving the rest of the audience.

At one point, he asked a guy if he was married to the woman sitting next to him. The man replied “no, we’re just on a first date.” The comedian asked the audience to encourage the guy to ask the woman to marry him. They did so with great excitement, after comedian whipped them up and egged them on a bit.

Much of the banter was simply silly and would have fallen flat in other circumstances. But the comedian managed to provoke an increasingly energized and enthusiastic response from the audience in the back-and-forth exchanges.

The comedian orchestrated a few practice greetings of the star Trevor Noah before he arrived, with the audience encouraged to take to their feet, cheer, and wave their hands over their heads and clap. I was amused to see Vincent Price, the University Pennsylvania Provost, sitting a few seats away, jump up and down like a hungry trained seal working for a fish from his trainer.

The audience was eventually deemed ready to actually greet Trevor. He dashed out onto the stage and adeptly fielded deliberately odd questions from the audience before the start of the actual filming of the show.

When the show was closer to starting, a large, mysterious director who had mostly stayed in the shadows, emerged to signal the audience to arise. It did so with genuine excitement and apparent spontaneity.

After filming the first segment of the show, the director and some staff reviewed it and were dissatisfied. They required second takes of some interactions with the audience. We complied and I doubted the later TV audience would know what they saw was restaged.

In the second segment, Leon Panetta was given a rousing welcome from the audience as he came onto the stage. Panetta was first the Chief of CIA and then Secretary of Defense under Obama. He was well prepared for being poked by Trevor and much funnier than I would’ve guessed.

But the director halted the taping because the audience was apparently off in its timing. So we provided Take 2 of Panetta’s entrance with more excitement.

For the finale of the show, the audience needed to serve as a wildly cheering backdrop for Trevor Noah’s exit. This too required a second take. Someone sent me a screenshot from the video available on the web in which I can clearly be seen doing my part.

me on daily show

Coyne of the Realm teaching the scientific writing class

Some readers may have attended one of my workshops on “Writing high impact papers and what to do when your manuscript gets rejected.” I’ve been teaching the workshop for years around the world, most recently at the European Health Psychology Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland. Before that was Melbourne. Lund, Sweden is upcoming in November, Amsterdam and Valencia are after the first of the year.

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Poster from Writing Workshop at World Congress Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies, Melbourne, July 2016

A takeaway message of  the workshop is that in the current competitive environment, doing solid science and writing in proper English is insufficient to get your work the attention it deserves. Up to 40% of all manuscripts in some fields are summarily sent back without review to authors, often without anyone, even the editor having read them.

So, it’s incumbent on authors to make a compelling pitch for their paper, using three tools that they have: the title, abstract, and their cover letter. Each of these three is usually written only as a quick afterthought, after the manuscript is otherwise ready for submission. That could be a fatal mistake for any hopes of the manuscript getting out for review.

having to sell yourselfWhat, I have to stoop to marketing my work? How dreadful. Academia often attracts people who want simply do their science, not engage in public relations or self-promoting. They could be disappointed when this is not enough to get published in the particular journals where they would get the recognition they crave.

There may be some self-selection into academia, but are also some strong cultural differences, with some Europeans and Asians loathe to emulate Americans, whom they see as loud, brash, overbearing and unduly confident and impressed with themselves. My Dutch audiences, particularly, recall having been raised with an attitude of “kop boven het tall corn flower cut2maaiveld uitsteken– roughly translated as ‘the tall cornflower gets cut.’

Maybe, but like the audience on the Daily Show, you can get worked up for a role you have to play, particularly when you don’t take yourself too seriously. I know, getting your manuscript out for review and then into print is serious business. But take it all as dead serious play and it will hurt less when things don’t go as planned. Pump up for Take 2. Take the promotion of your manuscript as an orchestrated performance.

My workshops give participants background on the current publishing environment as well as strategies for to identify and reach the readership which will be most appreciative of their work. I rely on workshop slide presentations that have been continuously refined over the years and I have didactics to go with them. But what is most distinctive and engaging is a lot of back and forth interaction with the audience. I term it call and response. The workshop participants pitch me their soundbites, rough sketches of their ideas, and elevator pitches.  They get my response and we go back and forth with escalating focus and contagious enthusiasm.

Influenced by my having a bit part on the Daily Show, I deliberately shifted my presentation style in Aberdeen, relying much less on my slides and much more on spontaneous interaction with the audience. In the afternoon, I ignored the slides except to consult them at break to see if I had missed anything.

Taking a tip from the comedian, I started with a casual interaction with the audience, questioning them about who they were, what their stage of their career, their where they were from and their experiences publishing papers or trying to. I had no illusions of being Trevor Noah or his warm up comedian, but I got the need to loosen up the workshop participants.

Then I launched into individual call and response  interactions with them. I am sure many participants came away thinking that they had not known how excited they could be about their work, once was put into better focus. Hopefully their enthusiasm will prove contagious when it comes to submitting their papers and getting them reviewed.

I’m careful not to embarrass or confront participants in the workshop about it, but I have come to strongly suspect that many junior and even senior authors submit their manuscripts without giving much thought to why an editor should be interested in it or get excited about it.

 Capturing this for web-based courses

 I now realize that the web-based courses that I am planning need to have the sriracha sauce of some of these live exchanges. So…

My film crew and I are setting up some 90 minute sessions at colleges and universities in the larger Philadelphia area. For a limited time, we will come for free and I will instigate this kind of back and forth, call and response sequences to be captured on the film. I expect to have a good time, and I expect that the audiences will too. Maybe they’ll even be more likely to get the papers out for review

If you’re lucky, I’ll see you there. Otherwise, you can go to my CoyneoftheRealm website and sign up to receive a free 15 minute sampling of the course that will soon be coming available.