Tag Archives: Science communication

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.

The most popular TED talk of all time

In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson delivered what is currently the most viewed TED talk ever. At the time of this writing the talk has roughly 32 million views if you include YouTube, the TED website and all other streaming apps. Pretty impressive numbers in general, but what makes the talk so good? and why does a talk about education claim the top spot? In this post I will delve into what makes this TED talk stand out from the rest, although first you might want to take a look at the talk in it’s entirety.

In short, Sir Ken Robinson believes that education in the current form does not allow young children to explore their creativity. The education system forces children to study and focus on subjects which “matter” while neglecting arts, music and theater. Those students whom do not conform to this model are often labeled as disruptive and sometimes said to have ADHD. Besides the fact that I agree with him, at least for the most part, on his thesis statement. What makes me and the other 31,999,999 people sit through a 19 minute and 24 second talk on the state of the education system? One rather obvious thing that sticks out is that Sir Ken is quite funny. Although, a British accent and a sarcastic sense of humor still does not add up to the most viewed talk of all time. The key, I believe, is that this talk is not just witty but well rehearsed, dramatic (when it needs to be), and thought provoking.  You might be thinking to yourself right now, “aren’t all TED talks like that?”, the answer is, well, not exactly…. let me show you what I mean.

The loss of creativity due to the fear of making mistakes”

Sir Ken Robinson does something amazing that few people ever do, that is, he convinces the his audience (and my guess is a good majority of the 32 million people as well) that the education system is broken. The same education we all went through, the one that many people work in for the betterment of society, the one we spend millions of public and private money on, yeah that one is broken. In other words for the most part we walk away from the talk thinking “yeah he is right!”. In fact so many people felt strongly enough about it, that they shared it with friends and those friends shared it with others until it got to the viral status that it has now. Additionally, Sir Ken does this all the while, using no power point, no actual data, and no testimonials from scientists. That is not to say that it makes him unqualified to speak on the subject, but rather that he uses the spoken word and the power of story telling to convince the audience of his point. This is a art form that I think is lost from the modern day. There isn’t a person in the academic or business world that has not sat through a boring talk where the speaker is relying on a slide show to tell a story rather than themselves. Not to mention that slides shows are often poorly designed wall’s of text which are read aloud to a room full of adults! Technology is a great tool when it comes to public speaking, however over use will lead to a disconnect between the speaker and the audience and ultimately becomes a distraction. Speaking in front of a crowd often takes a lot of practice, and the use of technology cannot (at least not yet) substitute for the energy and charisma of the spoken word. This is, I think the main strength of his talk, his energy and charisma for education is apparent to everyone and it inspires.

“We squander the talents of children”

In the technical sense, Sir Ken uses a method of injecting jokes between bold statements, vivid anecdotes and quotes from famous authorities. He blends these tools perfectly to fit his style of public speaking. This is a well thought out performance that hit the mark in an extraordinary way. For example, if you have ever gone to a comedy club then you already know that the “up and coming” comedians can be hilarious or can bomb in a major way. This is chiefly due to the fact that people respond to jokes and story telling only if the timing, meter and the delivery is right. It can take years for even experienced comedians to figure out how to get an audience to connect with a joke or story. I believe that the realm of public speaking it is no different. The TED talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave back in 2006 was not simply an off the cuff rant with some wit thrown in for good measure. (although that can happen from time to time) His talk was a well rehearsed performance that has a lot of similarities to a live musical or theatrical performance.

“Our job is to act!”

If you have ever listened to live music you already know that a misplayed note or missed rest can be very obvious. In the same way, a poorly rehearsed talk isn’t going to win awards or sway the audience. The key is to not only practice the delivery but to also consider the timing, and use of silence when giving a talk. These aspects of a speaker should blend harmoniously with the correct and appropriate use of body language. So how to put it all together to make your next talk as good as the highest viewed TED talk? I believe the first step is to have a subject matter that you believe in. For scientists this is usually not too hard since a great many of us sacrifice a lot to do the work that we do. Other professions need to dig deep to find that passion, because if you can’t convince yourself, it is going to be a hard sell to your audience. Rehearse so that you are natural and not stumbling over yourself trying to remember details, but also think about not becoming a mechanical fact spewing machine. It’s cool that Siri can answer questions by reading Wikipedia to you, but no one wants to listen to her give a public talk. Try to channel the enthusiasm of a child telling you why their favorite toy is so cool, just be more eloquent and use bigger words. Obviously there is a lot we can learn from Sir Ken Robinson that I have left out. But at least I hope that you can get a sense of what makes this talk so good. In future posts we will look to other inspiring talks and fill in a lot of gaps in terms of mechanics for public speaking.

If you want to learn more about Sir Ken Robinson visit www.sirkenrobinson.com/ and you can view his other TED talks here.