Some would argue that a traditional format is the correct (and only acceptable) way to give a formal talk about scientific research. Here are my objectives: 1, 2, 3; here are my methods: 1, 2, 3; here are my results: 1, 2, 3; here are my conclusions: 1, 2, 3. Any questions? Anything else is unprofessional. I would like to play devil's advocate here for a moment and consider whether this viewpoint is totally justified and whether there is another approach that might work better–and that is to tell a story. This idea is not a new one. Many experts advise speakers that the best way to capture and hold an audience's attention is to tell a story. The idea of storytelling as a professional presentation device has become fairly widespread in business circles. Maybe even to the point of attaining myth status (hence, my title).
Audiences love stories–presumably even audiences composed of scientists. We enjoy a good story just as much as regular folks. But should we use a story to present scientific information? What kind of story are we talking about? Let's explore the idea a bit.
Some of you may have heard of Nancy Duarte, the guru of presentations. If not, you might want to check out her books, Slide:ology and Resonate. Anyway, she suggests that there are three things you must do to ensure a successful presentation: 1) keep the audience in mind, 2) understand your role as the presenter, and 3) tell a good story. Her point is that to really connect with an audience, a speaker needs to tell a compelling story...one that appeals to that particular audience and that ensures all audience members hear and understand the message. A good story helps a speaker connect with the audience and helps the audience understand the content of the presentation.
In a scientific presentation, we are presenting facts and figures, for the most part. I'm sure there are scientists out there who want to present only the facts and sneer at the suggestion that those facts might be presented in the form of a story or in a way that helps the audience follow the material being presented. You've probably heard such speakers. They jump right into their talk without providing any background or stopping to explain complex concepts or terminology; they assume that the audience understands why their research is important. If someone in the audience is not up to speed, then too bad. This example sits at one extreme along a continuum in the connection between speaker and audience. At the other extreme is the situation in which the speaker has made not only an intellectual connection with the audience, but an emotional one as well.
This is where storytelling comes in. Its purpose is to enhance the connection between speaker and audience. A story will elicit some type of emotional reaction: surprise, intrigue, laughter, curiosity, excitement. But does a more compelling, humorous, or interesting storyline really help make our information more appealing, understandable, or memorable for an audience?
I've been pondering this question and how to go about telling a good story in a scientific presentation for some time. For example, is it possible to make slight changes in the traditional format of scientific presentations so that the speaker addresses all three of Duarte's suggestions? The idea is to capture the audience's attention right from the beginning and make them pay attention through to the end. I don't think it requires much of a change in the traditional format to turn what could be a boring presentation into one that makes the audience sit up and pay attention. There are a few ways to do this. Some presenters tell a personal story, e.g., how they became interested in their topic or what their motivation was. Other speakers use humor, either by delivering a "tongue-in-cheek" talk or by telling an opening joke or amusing story (that relates to the topic; just telling a random joke usually falls flat).
Another approach is to spark the audience's curiosity by posing the work in the form of a broader question or a deeper mystery. You might even combine the mystery and personal story approaches by starting your presentation this way: "I was at my field site (or in the lab), finishing up measurements, and made an interesting observation.....I wondered what was going on....so I decided to conduct a little side-experiment....the results of that experiment turned out to be the most important discovery of my career."
That is telling a story....and one that will get the immediate attention of everyone in the room. They will want to hear how the story turns out.
If your research result is not so career-changing, you might say, "That experiment led to a most surprising conclusion about [insert research topic]." Or you might say, "That experiment led to the most interesting aspect of my dissertation research." Then you can proceed with the typical format of introduction, methods, results, and conclusions to describe your study. At the end, you would return to your "story" and perhaps explain how this has led you into an exciting new area of research or to new research collaborations. Variations on this theme might be: ...that experiment opened up a whole new area of research for me....that experiment led me to question my whole approach to [insert science topic]....that experiment made me question the well-known theory of [insert theory]...that experiment showed me how I had gone wrong in previous attempts....etc.
Most audiences will find such personal comments not only acceptable but will remember your talk because you injected some emotion into it (in contrast with all the dry, passionless talks they will attend at that conference).
You may have heard that there are only 7 (or 20 or 36, depending on the source) basic plots in storytelling. Here is a list of 20 (from 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias) that might be fun to ponder as a possible storyline for a scientific presentation (note: I'm not necessarily recommending these; this is just a mental exercise to get us thinking about story lines):
7) The Riddle
15) Forbidden Love
18) Wretched Excess
The example I gave above might fall into the Riddle, Metamorphosis, Transformation, or Discovery type of plot. Some of these plots seem tailor-made for science (e.g., Rivalry, Sacrifice), whereas others may be inappropriate or inadvisable to use (e.g., Forbidden Love (although this might work for research on reproduction!)).
If you are a student, you might begin your talk by saying that you knew next to nothing about your topic or had a preconceived notion about it....then you conducted your research....and ultimately learned x, y, and z. This approach uses the "Maturation" story plot. If your research involved traveling to Antarctica or to a deep sea vent, then you might be able to use the Adventure plot and interject some interesting side notes about your experiences or the difficulties in acquiring your data. I know that such aspects appeal to scientific audiences because in my own presentations, I often get unexpected comments about the data that I've collected worldwide. The most common comment I get is not about how impressive my dataset (and scope of inference) is, but instead something along the lines of, "Wow, I'm impressed with all the exotic places you've traveled to and worked in." I'm always taken aback by such comments, but it tells me something about what people find interesting and memorable about my work (hopefully, they also find my results interesting).
Not everyone recommends this personal story approach, however, because it puts the speaker at the center of attention instead of the topic of the talk. As Duarte advises, "So many people feel like they’re the central figure — kind of like the hero of the story — because they’re the one talking the most. But in reality, your role is that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way." I agree. In any professional presentation, the topic should be center stage–although it is possible to use a personal story that compliments or enhances the science story, as the examples above illustrate.
I think a much better (and safer) approach is to tell a story about the science. So how do you tell a story about your research using the science topic as the basis of the plot?
You might begin by considering your research question or hypothesis and then design your story around it. You likely conducted an experiment (or a series of experiments) to test some hypothesis. Try to think of a popular analogy that relates to your hypothesis and use it to introduce your talk. Let me give you an example...one that I saw someone use in a conference presentation. The topic was ecosystem restoration, and the title was something along the lines of "Field of Dreams: If You Build It, Will They Come?" The talk opened with a picture of a baseball field, and the speaker briefly referred to the movie, Field of Dreams, and then described how it related to her question about ecosystem restoration: whether recreating the physical landscape or framework of a particular habitat would naturally lead to colonization by plants and animals typical of that habitat and eventually to restoration of key ecosystem functions. Her research tested this idea. She used the baseball analogy to put a clear image in the audience's mind....one that most movie-goers could immediately relate to. The speaker then used a baseball diamond (and the bases) as a framework to make various points throughout the talk. It was very effective from several standpoints. First, the baseball analogy captured the audience's attention and told them that this was not going to be a typical talk....that the presenter had gone to extra effort to help the audience understand her topic (meeting Duarte's first point about keeping the audience in mind). Second, the baseball analogy provided a framework for the talk and put the speaker into the role of a guide or mentor who helped the audience understand the overall concept of her research (meeting Duarte's second point about the role of the speaker). And third, the baseball analogy created an effective storyline (meeting Duarte's third point about telling a good story).
Another effective way to tell a good science story is simply to describe how the research relates to humans. For example, imagine that you conduct research on how to model sea-level rise. Start off by explaining how sea-level rise will impact human communities living along the world's shorelines and how your research will lead to more accurate identification of the most flood-vulnerable areas. That's a story that causes an emotional reaction or emotional connection between the audience and your topic–and only takes a few seconds to relate. Now, people in the audience will understand at a gut level why your research is important, even if they cannot follow all the technical details of your modeling work. Everyone should be able to use this human-interest approach to tell a story about their research. It just takes a bit of effort to make the connection for your audience. Don't assume they will know it; and even if they do, they will appreciate your pointing it out, especially if you tell it well.
You can also tell a story by putting your research into a historical perspective. Describe how previous discoveries or insights have led up to your question or hypothesis. The audience will then wonder how your story will turn out. Will your work add to that history? Will it overturn long-held dogma? Audiences always appreciate having things put into a historical perspective, even those who are intimately familiar with the topic (and especially those who contributed to that history).
Similar to the historical perspective approach, you can also present what is known and what is not known about your topic and then explain how your research attempts to fill that information gap. You can use facts and figures to support your story, but it will still be a story. How will it turn out? Will your data be sufficient to bridge the gap or will more work need to be done?
So does the advice about telling a good story extend to scientific presentations? Or is it just a myth? Well, think about which presentations you've heard that really stuck with you. Did they tell a good story?