Comfort zones

Massung_SoapboxBristol2014.jpgBy Dr. Elaine Massung, Research Assistant at the Department of Computer Science, University of Bristol.

Elaine recently participated to our Bristol event, where she talked about smartphones and sustainability. You can follow Elaine on Twitter @GreenDoors2014


Comfort zones.  We all have them, those safe bubbles that we cocoon ourselves inside. Occasionally we may stick our heads above the parapet, with the result being that our comfort zone either increases in size, or we retreat, muttering, “I’m never doing that again.”

Me, I hate speaking in public.  I mean, speaking with the public is fine – it’s a large part of my job and is something I enjoy: conducting interviews to determine what features organisations want in an app, or exploring what users found confusing during trials so improvements can be made.  But I view this as a conversation; speaking in front of people is a different kettle of fish entirely.

My heart rate accelerates, my stomach clenches, and my mind races … and all of this can start days, if not weeks before I’m due to speak.  I read an article once that theorised that the fear of public speaking was rooted in evolution: for our distant ancestors, having many eyes focussed on you meant that you might soon become dinner.  While I logically know I am unlikely to fall prey to a modern audience, this always rang uncomfortably true.

And yet I figured I might as well apply for Soapbox Science Bristol; it never hurts just to apply, right?  And then I got accepted.  And somehow found myself at the London Zoo, surrounded by a group of women conducting fascinating research, all waiting to hear from Robin Ince about communicating science.

Robin’s talk about the perils and pitfalls of presenting science to the public was by turns hilarious and thought provoking.  The necessity of enthusing, rather than informing, was one point that stuck with me.  This is the complete opposite of presenting academic papers, where it’s important to note that X% of the control group were observed to do Y, or to regurgitate the necessary technical details to satisfy a reviewer’s curiosity.  So rather than speak in minute detail about one app I was involved with, I decided to focus on citizen science in general; as a topic it’s interesting and accessible, or so I hoped.

He also spoke of the importance of theatricality, but that it wasn’t necessary to pull a rabbit from a top hat.  Perhaps it was meant as a throwaway line, but it reminded me of a quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  And what modern technology is more magical than a smartphone, one pocket-sized device that can tell you the time, let you take pictures and check email, keep track of your shopping list and appointments, allow you to catch up with your favourite TV programme while on the bus, as well as make phone calls and send text messages?  My Soapbox Science talk was beginning to take shape.

I busied myself with buying and making the props I wanted to use.  Many hats began to arrive in the post as I did my bit to keep eBay in business, and I got to know the nice lady at Stationery World after making multiple visits to purchase sheets of foamboard (lesson learned: cutting foamboard should be left to professionals).  With my focus on the props, it was easy to ignore the other side of the equation, the whole speaking-in-public business.

But the day of Soapbox Science was rapidly approaching, and what I had signed myself up for was becoming increasingly clear.  There would be no notes.  No PowerPoint.  No guaranteed audience – I’d have to attract and hold a crowd.  Oh, and I’d be standing on a soapbox.  My comfort zone was quickly receding and becoming a dot on the horizon.

The morning of Soapbox Science Bristol dawned bright and clear and hot.  Really hot.  While I wondered whether keeling over from heat exhaustion would save me from the necessity of actually having to speak, it was suddenly show time.  My nerves were taut as I began to talk to the little group assembled in front of me.  And talk.  And talk.  I realised I actually knew what I was speaking about – despite the unusual location and situation, I was still in my comfort zone.  And I realised I was having fun.

Some people listened to only a minute or two then walked on, but most stayed.  Whether out of politeness or interest, I don’t know, but it was encouraging and I found the next hour passing in a pleasant blur.  My memories of the experience range from doing battle with a sash that was trying its utmost to slip from my shoulder (future Soapboxers: safety pins are your friend), to the nods of the crowd and the whispers of “Oh, we should download that!” when I mentioned popular citizen science apps.  I only had one out-of-body experience: a presenter from the BBC came around to interview Soapbox Scientists about their research and I don’t know what I said, but my husband assures me it was coherent English. Success!

So what have I learned from my Soapbox Science experience?  Comfort zones can stretch to encompass things you never thought possible.  Conversations can take many forms.  Both can even include a soapbox.

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