“Half-Life Your Message” to overcome the curse of knowledge: SciComm lessons from improv

Title: Half-Life Your Message: A Quick, Flexible Tool for Message Discovery

Author(s) and Year: Elyse L. Aurbach, Katherine E. Prater, Brandon Patterson, Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher; Published in 2018

Journal: Science Communication (Open Access)

TL;DR: Science communicators often find the process of identifying their core scientific messages to be challenging. The “Half-Life Your Message” improv technique is an effective distilling tool that consists of discovery, self-reflection, and debriefing.


Why I Chose This Article: I work with engineering students on overcoming their cognitive biases regarding technical topics when communicating with others. This article has inspired me to use the “Half-Life Your Message” technique to help my students identify their core messages.


The Curse of Knowledge


In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Psychology graduate student at Stanford, illustrated through an iconic experiment humans’ inability to determine the biases that influence how actions and intentions are interpreted and understood by others. In her dissertation “The rocky road from actions to intentions,” Newton asked a group of volunteers to finger-tap a popular tune of their choice (e.g. Happy Birthday, Silent Night, etc.) and to estimate the extent to which the tune would be guessed by a random group of listeners. Although tappers estimated that half of the listeners would guess their tunes, in reality, only two out of 150 tunes were correctly identified by listeners. This overconfidence grew to become commonly known as the curse of knowledge: the cognitive bias that once we know something, it is hard for us to recreate a state of mind of not knowing it, which makes it difficult to share that knowledge with others.


Because science and scicomm experts know too much about their fields of expertise, they often suffer from the curse of knowledge, which hinders their ability to communicate with nonexperts.


In this paper, Aurbach and colleagues thus start with the premise that although several tools and guidelines have been developed for scientists and science communicators to effectively communicate scientific messages, such resources mostly assume an ability to identify and prioritize their core messages. The researchers thus wanted to introduce a technique that can help science communicators distill their knowledge without sacrificing accuracy.


The Half-Life Your Message Technique


In improv, the Half-Life Your Message Technique involves multiple individuals recreating the same scene within varying time constraints. This exercise allows actors to transition from including unnecessary details in the scene to focusing solely on the core message.


Aurbach and colleagues adapted this multi-person improv technique into an individual 3-minute scicomm exercise that helps to distill scientific messages. The process first involves granting an individual 60 seconds to improvise talking about a technical topic. Then, their time is cut in half and they have to explain that same topic in 30 seconds. The process again repeats two more times in 15 seconds and then again in 8 seconds. Shortening the talk in this fashion helps the speaker identify the core message that they wish to communicate.

This exercise is about spontaneity and discovery and not about practice and iteration. The goal is not for communicators to progress through different ideas throughout the exercise but to rather finetune and distill the same idea.


When trying this technique in their classrooms, the researchers found that participants take away many lessons from this activity, such as being able to share their core point in way less time than they had originally thought; discovering an unexpected central message; and realizing that they need to relate their messages to different starting points than what they had originally thought.


The authors go even further by suggesting further components to the “Half-Life Your Message” technique used in improv. Particularly, they propose two additional components that help center the exercise around the target audience. This involves: (1) a debriefing on the elements of the message that stayed, versions that resonated the most with listeners, etc., and (2) a self-reflection on the appropriateness of the final message in relation to the context and audience.



The Impact


This technique can be used by scicomm practitioners and trainers alike to distill (or to train on distilling) complex technical and scientific knowledge. Although applying improv in scicomm is still a nascent area, the authors reference a video example of what this toolkti look like, as well as a video-based timer to help run this exercise. The authors, however, caution that it is sometimes difficult to convince individuals to try this technique due to their lack of comfort with improv. Yet, because it is a flexible and low-time-investment exercise it is worth it to try as a way to discover the core technical and scientific messages that escape cognitive biases. As Newton (1990) puts it:

“...if we do not recognize how impoverished our behaviour is relative to our thoughts about our behaviour, we will greatly overestimate the ease with which our partners will be able to interpret this behaviour accurately.”


Edited by Kirsten Giesbrecht and Stephanie Deppe

Cover image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radiation_warning_symbol.png