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Thanks to SPCR trainee Beth Bareham, Newcastle University Institute of Health and Society

This February, I took on a challenge that to some may seem the stuff of nightmares: supported by Bright Club NE, I performed a comedy set based on my SPCR-funded doctoral work at ‘the thinking person’s variety night’ in our local comedy venue, The Stand.

Public engagement is an extremely important part of research because most of the time we need to step outside of the confines of academia for our research to have any real world impact. As my doctoral studies have developed, I have recognised that the implications of my work reach beyond the university and our health care system and into societal attitudes and values. People don’t associate risky drinking with older people, as their patterns of drinking are less visibly excessive, and the increased risks of drinking, associated with the ageing process and medical conditions or medications common in later life, are not well known. Consequently, neither older people, those around them nor their care providers pay any special attention to older people’s drinking. This issue has been recognised by a small number of academics and service providers, drawing funding to develop an organisation ‘Drink Wise Age Well’. Despite at least 20% drinking in a way that may be a risk to their health, they have highlighted that up to 80% of these individuals have never discussed their drinking with friends, family or professional care providers. 

The message - that we need to think and talk more about older people’s drinking - is a message that the wider public need to hear.

beth2Engaging the public requires a certain level of skill. I am getting used to presenting at academic conferences, though still have some performance anxiety and I’ve never yet managed to memorise a full presentation. Throughout my PhD, I have taken every opportunity to challenge myself to develop the skills I need as a researcher. Having recently won a prize for presenting using a new style I had learned at an NIHR training event, I was ready for the next journey out of my comfort zone.

Bright club is an event which blends comedy with academic research to create an opportunity for the ‘comedian’ to engage the public in their research, and an entertaining and thought-provoking evening for the audience. Several researchers perform their sets across the course of the show, interjected by ‘real’ comedy and public engagement acts.

Bright Club meant the very exciting but challenging task of looking at my work through a new lens. I had to find the humour in a topic which I would usually take seriously. This didn’t seem too difficult at face value, as ‘things’ have kept happening to me throughout the conduct of this project that have always tickled my colleagues when I returned to the office and updated them on my latest endeavours. These amusing stories often reflected our expectations in society that older people are responsible drinkers, and the humour was a result of how unexpected these events were. These tales seemed to support the important message that I was looking to convey. However, I didn’t want to obscure the message of my set by speaking about my lovely group of older participants in a derogatory or critical way. I knew there was a moral in these stories, but I needed to find the right tone. Fortunately, working with Bright Club meant I had access to valuable training and input, with feedback from an expert engagement team and my colleagues who were also preparing to perform. I wasn’t the only one facing a dilemma in how to convey my messages – a colleague was working to juggle humour with empathy in educating the audience on chronic facial pain. I worked with an angle I had learned during training, where caricaturing your personality shifts the focus of the humour. I highlighted my own weaknesses as I developed my set, ensuring that the joke was on me and not on my participants or the older people that my work is advocating for.

beth3The event itself came around quickly. We had just two and a half weeks from our initial training session to prepare our sets. Pleased to hear that heckling was banned from the venue and driven by performance anxiety, I worked to fill my audience with familiar colleagues and friends in the run up to the event. I was somewhat daunted when over 100 people turned up on the night – of which less than a quarter were people I knew. We had a fantastic compere, Susan, who warmed the audience to boiling point before I was first on stage. I had a great laugh, and I’m pleased to say my audience did too. As an added bonus, my friends told me how relaxed I looked, which was reassuring – my acting was improving too!

Bright Club made me think about my research with a new purpose. I now recognise how to engage and inform the public in messages that they need to hear from my research in a way that they find interesting. The performance forced me to develop strategies to remember a full presentation, retaining the right emphasis to get my messages across effectively. Despite my misgivings, taking part in this has allowed my message to reach a wide audience, which will only widen as I am able to share the recording of my performance. I also had a really fantastic time. After the event, someone asked me if I was relieved it was over. I was glad that I no longer had to recite my set over and over when I was alone (my colleagues even caught me muttering it to myself in the street on the way to the venue), but I thoroughly enjoyed the excitement of it all and I am sad that it’s now over.

If Bright Club is something that you’ve been meaning to try but haven’t, if you’re looking for an opportunity to engage the public in your research, or if you feel you could do better at presenting, I urge you to give Bright Club a go. The training, support, advice and guidance on offer will ensure your success, and can all be managed around your workload (I took this on in the final year of my PhD, and went on stage alongside a recently appointed professor, amongst others). The experiences and skills on offer are only positive for your development as a researcher, and who knows, for some of us another career may beckon!

You can find a video recording of my set here:

Thanks to public engagement experts Marilena Pace and Elin Roberts, and my colleagues Alison Wheatley, Justin Durham and Dorota Badowska for your guidance, support and company throughout the training, rehearsals and event.

Photo credits: Luca Cepollaro