Anders Sahlman has a background as a civil engineer in biotechnology at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), but his interests have always included a creative and artistic aspect.
“I have been interested in theatre since I was small – I’ve always loved acting and being up on stage. When I was studying, I spent more time in student revues than in the lecture theatres.”
After he’d graduated, he began working with research communication while, at the same time, trying to find new and creative ways of expressing himself.
“People have always said to me that I’m good at talking in front of groups of people and giving presentations, so the step from there to stand-up didn’t seem very big. I thought of myself as a funny guy so it was worth having a go.”
First performance was a flop
He signed up for a week-long foundation course in stand-up comedy. But his first performance didn’t go down too well.
“I told an anecdote that I thought was funny and which usually got a laugh at parties. But it didn’t get a single laugh.”
Anders Sahlman began to doubt whether he was actually funny at all.
“I had what was almost an existential crisis. That week, I learned what stand-up comedy really involves. It is really important to be able to project your own personality – to be able to answer questions such as ‘who are you?’, ‘what are your weaknesses?’ and ‘what is the first thing the audience thinks when you walk onto the stage?’. I found it really difficult to confront these things.”
Anders put his stand-up carrier on ice. A few years later, he went on more stand-up and acting courses and it felt like it was time to have another try, although now the conditions were completely different. Above all, he now knew a lot more about himself and had learned to not care about what other people thought.
“I decided to make use of what I work with, which is research and research communication. I tried to make something funny out of this somewhat dry environment I find myself in, and it worked a lot, lot better.”
But just how funny is it to make jokes about research and research communication?
“I don’t make jokes about the subject in itself but about people’s preconceptions of the research community. I often lure the audience along a path that appears to be dull, dry and boring, and then I put a twist on it at the end so that they laugh.
“In some way, it is in the very nature of research to be extremely serious and to not dare to claim anything without citing a reference. I can find it quite comical when researchers sometimes take themselves a little too seriously.”
The reception from the research community has been positive.
“Sometimes, researchers come up to me from the audience and ask if I can help them to be a bit funnier.”
Stand-up for researchers
Anders Sahlman is also involved in organising the Researchers´Grand Prix, together with VA (Public & Science).
“It’s a bit like stand-up for researchers”, he says. “Researchers have to explain their work in a way that is as simple, informative and entertaining as possible”.
It can be difficult to get researchers to take part in the competition. Many change their minds when they realise how much time it actually takes to write a four minute presentation. But, according to Anders Sahlman, it is precisely the preparation process that is the whole point.
“The researchers get to train themselves in explaining things in a concise and easily understood manner. They grow in their ability to present their research. It is a real strength to be able to stand in front of an audience and receive confirmation that they are responding to what you are trying to convey.”
Growing with the challenge
He enjoys witnessing how people grow as they respond to the challenge.
“The final days give me a great deal of energy. It’s fun to see the participants’ reactions when they are standing on the stage at Nalen in front of several hundred people, presenting their research and being interviewed by the media.”
Should researchers include more humour in their presentations?
“Those that have the aptitude to use humour should do so. What is important is that you use your own personality. This is what makes it interesting and arouses the interest of the audience. Some use humour whilst others might use drama.”
Some researchers are better at presenting their work than others.
“There are some bright stars and then there are those who aren’t quite as good. Many will fall somewhere in between and need to learn to trim their material – to talk as efficiently as possible and to dare to keep their language simple.”
Does everybody have to be good at this?
“No, not everybody needs to be a natural performer but, then again, it is a good idea to have an ‘elevator pitch’ for one’s research – a simple, brief presentation of one’s research from which everybody can draw some benefit.”