How to Communicate Science Using a Story Arc

Often times when presenting or speaking in a science communication setting, people feel compelled to use the format of a peer reviewed paper. The traditional, introduction, methods, results/discussion, and conclusion are suitable for the written word, however is not the best choice for the medium of public speaking. The main problem is that the written word can be reviewed, reread, and contemplated at the reader’s own pace. Where as, in a presentation the audience must keep up with the speaker or they can get lost in the details. For the most part almost every story follows a distinct format that allows the audience to be drawn in and immersed in the message. Preparing your next presentation with a clear plan and format will not only increase the audience’s retention but also engage them, making your next presentation well received.

Eduard Geselschap Die Gutenachtgeschichte

Develop your game plan.

The most important part of spoken presentations is to make sure you have a well defined plan. Take time before you make any PowerPoint slides or graphics to decide what material you want to use, how will it add to your message, and what your goals are for the presentation. Think about the setting and format of the presentation as well. If you are only allowed five minutes for a short elevator pitch to a room full the general public, you will need a very different format from a 45 minute seminar to professional colleagues. Even in the shortest of presentations you can still fit all the aspects of a story arc, but you will need to be very concise and use well rehearsed language. Take considerable time to brainstorm and write out thoughts, then return to your ideas, days or even weeks later and see if everything stills fits with your goals.

Starting at the beginning, the introduction.

First you will need to set the stage for what you did and how you did it. For the most part you can take the main ideas of your introduction and methods (from a peer reviewed paper) and combine them for a spoken presentation. Remember, however, that for the most part you only need to provide a setting and backdrop for where and how your story (research) take place. You will not need to use excruciating detail of every method and procedure that you did, just the gist so that the audience has a point of reference. Additionally, craft sound and logical reasoning  for why the research or project was undertaken and why the audience should care. Think about how most movies begin, very early on there are logical sequences of scenes to setup background, to build up characters, and try to get the audience to identify with what is being shown to them. In film, the idea is to get the audience to believe in the illusion that they are actually part of the action they see on the screen. In the same way use words and imagery in your presentation so that the audience is joining you on a journey and become immersed in your work.

Build up tension and add some rising action.

Every story from fairy tales to epics, has some sort of rising action like tension or obstacles that need to be overcome. The purpose is to keep the story interesting, and make the audience want to keep paying attention. Usually this is in the form of a series of actions that keep the main character from completing his or her goal. This keeps a story interesting because we experience the same sort of complex obstacles in real life, and the rising action in a story helps us identify with the characters. When constructing your next presentation you will want to think about all the problems, be it external or internal that were preventing your work from progressing. In some cases this can be dramatic as a major hurricane destroying all your monitoring stations and threatening lives of the researchers, or it can be something more administrative such as the difficulty of funding. The key is to combine elements that create rising tension into your story so that it flows naturally. Make sure to add points along the way about the different struggles such as failed experiments, misadventures in field work, or fighting against biased opinions of colleagues. Whatever the case may be, the point is to include details of rising action in your presentation so that the audience can identify with you and become more engaged.

Define a turning point in your research or project.

Once you have established an introduction and some sort of rising tension in your presentation, it is then time to work on the climax or turning point of your work. This is the point you have been building up to through background (introduction) and established difficulties (rising tension) and the next step is now to show the fruit of that labor. By now in your presentation you probably have the audience following along with your story and already anticipating what happens next. This is the point where you want to show the results of your research and work that you have done. The point is that until now in your presentation it has been unclear to the audience how things might play out. Much like the climax in a story, you will want to show that whatever outcome or successes you have had. Keep in mind, however, that not every story has a happy ending. Even if your experiments or research didn’t pan out, this is still the climax of your story and should be presented to the audience. Science is often a series of failed attempts which leads to refinement and eventual success, which is enough for a climax or turning point.

What are the consequences and falling action.

At this point, it’s time to let the audience know what the results mean and how your understanding of them has affected the rest of your work. For example, how has your hypothesis changed about species X now that you know that they are not adversely affected by the new pesticide that was tested. It is a good idea to also include information about impending publications or reports and how this information might shift the community’s current paradigm. If any of the audience members want to follow up on your work after the talk, providing resources (e.g. links to publications, posters or hand outs) will increase engagement. It is important to make sure that you tie up any lose ends about the project or research so that the story has a complete and coherent feeling. Keep in mind that the audience is likely feeling fatigue at this time from paying attention, so it is best to remain on point and be concise. Generally speaking if you haven’t brought up something by now, then it is probably best to leave it out rather than trying to introduce new topics late in the presentation. If you realize there are crucial details missing from the story then you need to rearrange either the introduction or rising tension.

Childrens' books at a library

Final conclusions and summary.

Here is where you want to present your final closing thoughts on the information and how it all ties together. If you have been following the above format there is a good chance that the audience is also making the same connections based on the information you have given them. Being concise here is also good practice, make the final connections you need to and summarize what you have told them earlier in the presentation. For the most part by following these simple guidelines your presentations will be easier to follow and engage more of the audience since they will become immersed in your story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *