Arts

Emer Maguire: People kept laughing and saying they'd no idea science could be funny

Jenny Lee talks to Strabane woman Emer Maguire who combines working as a speech therapist with a career as a science commentator and musical comedian. They chat about her debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, the oddities of human behaviour and the art of captivating an audience

Science commentator and musical comedian Emer Maguire

WHAT do you get if you combine a speech therapist with a musician, a scientist, a radio presenter and a comedian? The answer is Emer Maguire. The 28-year-old, who grew up in Strabane and now lives in Belfast, didn't "fall in love" with science until her 20s, something that led her in a direction she never believed was possible.

"I was a very shy as a child and would never have been the type of person to get up in front of an audience," says Maguire, who also confesses she "didn't like science" at school.

So how did she end up as an award-winning science communicator?

"When studying at uni, I randomly saw an ad for this science communication competition, where the aim was to communicate one scientific concept in three minutes using good content and charisma.

"The deadline was New Year's Eve at midnight and I got brave at a New Year's Eve party and recorded a talk I had written about why monkeys can't speak. I did it for the craic, but also to challenge myself. I ended up winning the Northern Ireland and UK finals, where I talked about the science of love. That kick-started this whole science communication career for me," explains Maguire, who stills works two days a week as a speech therapist.

Following her 2015 UK FameLab victory, bookings at science conferences soon expanded to comedy gigs and even her own show on Radio Ulster, Science and Stuff with Emer Maguire.

"People kept laughing and telling me they’d no idea science could be funny," says four-time TEDx speaker Maguire, who took her debut show Emer Maguire: Hilarious Humans to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer.

Hilarious Humans takes an uproariously funny (and sometimes scientific) look at the oddities of human behaviour – from the nuances of being a middle child, to social awkwardness and online dating.

"I was very anxious before going over, thinking 'nobody knows me' and 'what if people don't like me?' But I did eight shows in six days and every show sold out and I got really lovely feedback. It's really boosted my confidence," says Maguire, who bases her writing on her own life experiences, as well as those of her siblings and friends.

"I love my shows to be interactive. I try to get everyone to introduce themselves to each other and then suddenly the audience go very awkward and I use that as an introduction to being socially awkward."

The show combines Maguire's other love – music. Described by one critic as 'the indie Victoria Wood', she performs on stage with her trusty half-size Martin guitar.

"I love writing songs to deliver a comic message. One time, I did contemplate recording an Indie pop album, but now the focus has shifted to comedy and science, with my most requested songs being the likes of Middle Child Syndrome," laughs Maguire, who will be performing the show at Belfast's Out to Lunch Festival today.

Also this month Maguire will travel to Poland to deliver a course in The Art of Audience Engagement. Northerners can avail of her valuable tips on becoming a confident communicator when she brings the course to Belfast's Vault Artist Studios on February 8.

"People say public speaking is their number one fear – even ahead of death – which I think is crazy. The secret is presenting your best self in situations where you might feel a bit awkward," adds Maguire, who says the course is for everyone from those who want to work in the media to those needing advice on job interviews or work presentations.

And her top advice on overcoming nerves and being a confident public speaker?

"Fake it, until you become it. Even if you are not feeling as confident as you would like to be, change your body language – stand up straight, have your shoulders back and just think to yourself, 'I can do this', and act like the person you want to be.

"The other thing I always say is make sure you are breathing properly, because if you're not it can make you have a shaky voice. And if you make a joke and it falls flat, whatever happens don't say sorry because if you make a mistake it draws attention to the mistake and may lose the audience's confidence in you."

Maguire will also be appearing at next month's Northern Ireland Science Festival, joining Dr Niamh Kennedy of Ulster University, to find out how all of us can boost our plasticity for a more healthy and younger brain.

And following her successful Elementary My Dear podcast series with National Museums NI, she is planning her own podcast series later this year, available through her website, iTunes and Spotify.

"I love learning and podcasts are one of the best ways to do so. I plan to take one theme every week and try to learn as much as possible about it and help the listener understand it. There will be some science, but it could literally any subject, such as the history of football or why we love dogs."

:: Emer Maguire's performance of Hilarious Humans at Belfast's Black Box today as part of the Out to Lunch Festival is sold out. For full festival programme visit Cqaf.com. Emer will also be appearing at the Northern Ireland Science Festival event Re-wiring Our Brain

on Sunday 16 February (nisciencefestival.com). For more events visit Emermaguire.com

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