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Whoa! Statisticians Put Second City to Shame with Improv Performance at JSM 2016

1 September 2016 791 views No Comment
Jessica Uttsa

Jessica Utts

This month’s President’s Invited Column provides an update on the two media initiatives described by ASA Vice President Rob Santos in this space in July. The highlight is a description of an experiential training workshop held at the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) for the Statistical Media Ambassadors program. The program is modeled (with permission) after a similar program launched almost three years ago by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in the UK. The RSS’s first training program, and information about their second cohort is available on their website.  As noted by RSS, the idea of the program is “to increase the number of statisticians that the society [RSS or ASA] could call on to help respond to requests from the press and elsewhere for experts who would be able to explain stats in a concise and accurate way.” As described below, the ASA media initiatives are being shaped by two working groups led by board members Wendy Lou and Rob Santos, with help from ASA Director of Strategic Initiatives and Outreach Donna LaLonde.


Wendy Lou

Donna LaLonde

Donna LaLonde

Robert Santos

Robert Santos






Who would have guessed? The American Statistical Association is chock-full of talented improv performers. And it’s likely (with probability approaching 1) that one of them is you! Why is this important? Let us explain.

As statisticians, one of the most important roles we play is that of a communicator. We are often in situations where complex statistical concepts, insights, and their limitations need to be explained in simple terms. Okay, when was the last time you were at a party or other social event and you received silence plus a blank or confusing stare from someone after explaining what you do for a living? That is the classic situation in which simple talk can go a long way.

Jessica Utts explains the ASA’s Ambassador and Media Training Initiative during her 2016 President’s Address at JSM (Photo by Rob Santos)

Jessica Utts explains the ASA’s Ambassador and Media Training Initiative during her 2016 President’s Address at JSM. (Photo by Rob Santos)

Increasing numbers of us are being approached by journalists for media interviews, quotes, and explanations regarding curious or surprising study results. For others, their jobs require that they be available for blogs, public events, and other forums where articulation of science in everyday language is key. However, most us are not trained in the ways of media communication, and those of us who already serve in this role could well benefit from more formal training to ‘up our game.’ Thus was borne ASA President Jessica Utts’ initiative—Ambassador and Media Training.

The Ambassador and Media Initiative represents two integrated workgroups:

The Statistical Media Ambassadors Roundtable Working Group. This group is developing a program to train a small, rotating cadre of senior, media-experienced statisticians who will be available to take media requests in their areas of expertise whenever the ASA is approached by a journalist. Training will hone quick-messaging, improvised storytelling, and the finer techniques associated with oral and visual media interviews. The ASA media ambassadors will agree to a period of service and undergo training prior to the start of their term, and they will also assist with training the next cohort before rotating off.

The Media Training for Statisticians Working Group. This group is designing a two-day training geared toward the novice, rather than the media-experienced statistician, although both would benefit. It will cover the basics of media interactions, including both written and oral/visual communications with journalists and the public. Content will include messaging, creating ‘sound bites,’ statistical storytelling, blogging, journalist email exchanges, and oral/visual basic skills development.

Statistical Media Ambassador Pilot Training at JSM 2016

So what does this have to do with improv and JSM? The Statistical Media Ambassador training program was piloted at JSM 2016 in Chicago. The pilot training was designed and conducted by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a part of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. It involved a full day of experiential learning that included small- and large-group exercises highlighting the value of improvisation and risk taking (i.e., letting yourself go) in telling your statistical story to a nontechnical audience that cares mainly about the bottom line and its implications for the world.

Arlene Ash and John McGready have fun with their improv in which Ash tries to explain a scientific concept to a 7-year-old McGready. (Photo by Rob Santos)

Arlene Ash and John McGready have fun with their improv in which Ash tries to explain a scientific concept to a 7-year-old McGready. (Photo by Rob Santos)

For instance, we engaged in a group exercise in which John McGready posed as a 7-year-old playing on the floor while Arlene Ash explained a statistical concept using simple language and metaphors. Arlene had to let go, put herself in John’s shoes, and keep him interested and engaged while venturing away from the usual academic explanations and risking difficult questions in the process.

Another activity centered on telling a photo story with just a blank piece of paper, describing it with such detail and infectious enthusiasm that the audience could ‘see’ the pictures (see photo).

Such techniques go a long way in getting statisticians to understand that, when it comes to media interviews and interactions with journalists, they need to be their natural selves—not stodgy scientists—and show their passion when explaining scientific concepts that are so much a part of their careers and lives.

From left: John Bailer, Jeri Mulrow, and Barry Nussbaum tell their photo stories with just a blank piece of paper. (Photo by Wendy Lou)

From left: John Bailer, Jeri Mulrow, and Barry Nussbaum tell their photo stories with just a blank piece of paper. (Photo by Wendy Lou)

The Statistical Media Ambassador training was piloted at JSM, and the full program is expected to be initiated in 2017. If you are interested in serving as an ASA Statistical Media Ambassador, be on the lookout for the solicitation of applicants in Amstat News and other ASA venues.

Media Pilot Training at ASA Headquarters in November 2016

The Media Training Working Group will pilot a two-day training this fall at ASA headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. The ASA is using partner Sense About Science to help design and conduct the training, which will include the basics of public engagement, discourse, and outreach. Sessions will cover knowing your audience and distilling your message. Both written (blogs, editorials, email exchanges with journalists) and oral/visual communications with the media (radio, video) will be treated.

The ASA is soliciting applicants to participate in this training. There is no fee for participation, and a small number of travel stipends is available for out-of-towners. The pilot training is scheduled for November 15–16. We seek participants that span the broad membership of the ASA: commercial, government, nonprofit, and academic members; early, mid-career, and senior statisticians; graduate students, academic appointees, etc. We need your participation to generate much-needed feedback for refining the program. Visit the ASA website and ASA Community for more information.

Our Reflection

Thinking back to the improv-infused Statistical Media Ambassador pilot training, it is hard not to smile. The experience left us as different people than when we started. Improv can be a humbling, yet rewarding, experience. More than anything, we left the training with a realization that even though scientific facts matter, they often go in a listener’s one ear and out the other. Stories, on the other hand, stay with us always. Perhaps it’s built into our DNA/human roots, but there is magic and magnetism in storytelling that is unique to human communication. We as statisticians can promote our field, our careers, our organizations, and our society by ultimately just being ourselves and telling the story of statistics as we see it. So please think about joining us on a journey to establish your own ‘media creds’ through the ASA’s upcoming media training programs!

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