The Art of Storytelling

If you have ever wondered how you might integrate storytelling into your next scientific talk then, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk is definitely for you. Before we jump straight into an analysis of what makes this a good talk, you might want to familiarize yourself with the video below.

Dr. Taylor began her career interested in how the human brain works, which led her to become a scientist working at Harvard. In extraordinary turn of events she experienced a stroke, and was still able to be cognizant enough during it to gain some incredible insight. As with many people who go through a stroke, it is quite literally a life changing event, and Dr. Taylor is no exception.  In her TED talk she focuses on the aspect of dramatic and powerful storytelling to get her message across. However, what I think is important to learn from her talk, is the way she segues from the typical science presentation to the more abstract storytelling mode. She begins with a similar format of many scientific talks, e.g. here is a short biography of how I got my start in science, some background on why my research is important, and what is the current state of my research. Many of us have sat through scientific presentations at national meetings and conferences. Often times the speaker begins strong, only to crash and burn getting lost in dense slides and minute details. This is a common pitfall of many scientists, where they have a difficulty expressing the enthusiasm they have for their research. In these cases the audience gets bored beyond belief and only people in the same field of research will even remember the talk! By contrast, despite Dr. Taylor’s research being complex, most people will remember quite vividly the details of her talk. This, I believe, should be the goal of every scientific talk, where the audience is enthralled and will walk away remembering not only their emotional response to the subject matter but also contemplating the message.

A stroke of insight

Although Dr. Taylor starts of with a familiar format, the big difference is that she blends the technical side of her research with the emotional revelations that she gained from her stroke. Although, I admit  this method might not work in every situation, it is important to understand why it works and how storytelling can add depth and character to your presentation. Remember, however, just like other visual aids (e. g. PowerPoint)  can add to the overall experience of the talk, this method will enrich the experience. Think of the storytelling as another tool which can be used to enhance your presentation. The key is to maintain the perspective that the audience came to hear what you have to say, and not see how well you can perform your interpretation of Hamlet.  Clearly this is a bit of hyperbole, but the point is that you have the story, so don’t let techniques or methods get in the way of your overall message. That all being said, after conducting a simple internet search I found out that Dr. Taylor practiced this talk about 200 times before she gave it. So don’t forget to plan ahead to work out the actual delivery.

Dr. Taylor uses something that many public speakers fail to take advantage of, and that is knowing how people can strongly identify with body language, enthusiasm and speaking rhythm. In the beginning of the talk she starts off technical, using some jargon and explaining her research. This is typical in many scientific talks, however, there is a clear anecdote building and she leads the audience logically from one point to the next. Her basic formula goes something like this; I have a brother with a brain disorder, I wanted to help and learn about it, I got into science and here is what I found about the brain, then I had a mental disorder of my own, here is what I learned. Simple right? Well with some practice, yes it can be!

“The Brain!”

I have watched many a young and bright up and coming scientist start strong in a talk, with a decent background of their research, yet only to have the wheels fall off shortly thereafter. So what happens? Where is the difference? The problem is that we (science types) fall into the mode of fact spewing, using slide after slide with charts and data. This leads to the audience disconnecting from the actual talk because they are busy trying to understand the data rather than thinking “okay, interesting so what happened next”. That is not to say that you can’t show results or data in the next talk you give, but it does mean that in many cases we likely presenting it wrong. What you should aim to avoid is a data overload, with poorly designed slides, not enough space or verbal silence to let things sink in, or simply not enough charisma. Consider trying to emulate Dr. Taylor by presenting a story with technical points intermixed. Emulation will help you integrate this into your next presentation and hopefully make a lasting mark on your audience.

This is not the typical kind of talk that you might give at every national conference, so I would suggest some discretion when practicing this method. However it can be a good format to use for a science communication talk, and at many universities around the country there are seminar series free to the public that you can participate in. If you are in or around the Tucson area you can always check out the science cafe talk series organized by the University of Arizona. As a final note I specifically avoided the fact that Dr. Taylor uses a prop in this talk (an actual brain) since although it does add much to the presentation, it wasn’t the primary focus of this post. In a later post I will go into more detail about visuals, props and other tools ] and how to use them effectively.

To find out more an Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor visit her website

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