By Emma Kent
Engineers like equations. Engineers like maths. Engineers like being taken seriously. Engineers don’t like uncertainty. So, you can understand why it was with huge trepidation that I accepted the opportunity to perform a stand-up comedy set as part of “Engineering Showoff” earlier this year.
With the help of an Ingenious public engagement grant from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Dr. Steve Cross took on the mammoth task of making a group of very serious engineers become stage-ready stand-up comedians. Steve coached us to tell our engineering stories in a comical way, and helped us prepare nine minute sets for the paying public. During our training, we found out about the formula for being funny and learned various industry secrets about how to amuse and entertain. After writing, re-writing, and much rehearsal, we were ready to face our audience.
So, there we were in a pub basement in Kings Cross, about to find out if engineers can be funny, as 100 punters stepped into the dark having paid £6 each to be entertained (all the profits went to the excellent Engineers Without Borders). The moment I walked on stage, I felt like my mind went totally blank. Luckily, I had managed to memorise parrot-fashion the first few lines of my set, which meant I got the chance to bang out a joke or two and get a couple of laughs before I had to engage my brain again. Once I got into the swing of things, I found that I was really enjoying myself! One of the funny formulae was that exaggeration is key to stand-up success, so I could really ham up some of my career highlights as I shared them. In the blink of an eye, nine minutes was over and I was shakily making a mess of putting my microphone back in the stand, ready to flop in my seat and enjoy the rest of the show.
Image by Dr. Steve Cross
The question everyone asks me is “Did anyone laugh?” At the time, I mostly had no idea if anyone was laughing because I was too busy trying to remember my next joke. Afterwards, watching the video, I realised that, yes, lots of people laughed, which presumably meant that I succeeded in being funny. This was a real revelation to me! As a confident presenter and public speaker, I was surprised at how challenging I found it to try deliberately to be funny. It has improved my confidence in engaging with others and garnered many compliments from colleagues, friends and even clients.
That comedy night I saw five other engineers bring the house down with their tales of poo, parachutes and why Mary Berry should be an engineer. You can see all the sets on YouTube here. If Steve set out to prove that engineers can be funny, chaotic, charismatic, and interesting, then he succeeded. Yes, we like equations, maths and being conservative (with a little c). But we also like engaging with people and sharing our pride in our profession with them. Here’s hoping more engineers can learn to take themselves less seriously and find joy in making people laugh with us (and at us!).
P.S. Despite the physical terror I felt stepping onto the stage, I enjoyed it so much that I have performed again as part of Cambridge Science festival. They say fear-inducing thrills are addictive after all…!