Using Tension to Communicate Your Story

Have you ever wondered why some movies, books or television shows can be so enthralling while others are seemingly uninteresting? One reason why we get so hooked on a story is because of suspense. The stories that we most often enjoy have an moment where the final outcome can go either way, and we become emotionally invested in that outcome. During the build up of conflicts in the story we identify with the characters and think of ourselves in that situation. 3 Often for dramatic effect writers and directors make the audience wait as long as possible for the outcome, hoping to build up as much suspense as possible. This is really a build up of emotional frustration in ourselves, due to the not knowing of the outcome and having to wait. Suspense usually manifests itself in the form of tension, and in this post our topic is how to harness this powerful emotional feeling when communicating. By utilizing tension in your presentations you will be able to keep the audience engaged and interested in the outcome of your talk.

Wikimania 2014 opening ceremony audience 16

What is tension?

Tension is used in every aspect of communication from short stories to video games. 2 To begin we need to clearly define exactly what we are trying to achieve. Here, I am referring to tension as the slight emotional or mental strain we feel when we are hearing a story.  It is an effective tool that can help drive the narrative. 1 Using tension can create a more interesting story or increase audience attentiveness. The reason why it works so well is because people empathize with the story they are hearing and imagine themselves in the same situation. 3 This is a unique aspect of human nature that we try our best to identify with our colleagues and friends. Despite tension feeling unpleasant, humans want to be able to relate others and understand the problem at hand. People actually crave feelings that give them excitement and frustration, this helps create an interesting story and something that we enjoy. 2

So you may be asking yourself, but my boring subject matter has no tension, how can I create something that isn’t there in the first place? The fact is that every story can be told in a way that creates tension. There was probably a lot of tension throughout your project that you shrugged off because it didn’t seem to be that important at the time. Specifically in science, there is no work that is done without problems, difficulties, or hurdles to overcome. Yet, in our perception of our own work we tend to trivialize these difficulties so that it seems uninteresting. I can’t tell you how many times I have explained some seemingly boring aspect of my work to the general public only to hear the response of “that is so interesting!”. In our day to day it is easy for things to seem mundane. In fact, the problems you had to face and overcome to achieve your goals or finish your project add to the tension of the story.

Finding tension

There are some tricks you can use to help figure out what parts of your story will add tension when you tell it. Begin by thinking about any  actual consequences of your work, or your research. For example, anyone who does research in bio-medical fields where the lives of others depend on their work. Or perhaps people who take great risks to do work in dangerous areas, such as doctors without borders. If your work is something that is less dramatic, consider things that help people understand what you are solving and why. This is usually the main idea behind the “why should we care” slide that so many people include in their talks. The idea is that you want to explain how others can empathize with your work and expand on this emotion. Do this by brainstorming out some ideas on how your work effects the audience. Next make a list of all the problems big and small that you had to overcome. From your field vehicle breaking down, to someone getting attacked by a wild animal. People think that science is boring, but over the years I have seen deceit, sabotage, and literal fist fights. You don’t need to pretend to be writing a script for a soap opera, but identify conflict and use them to your advantage.  By coming up with a reason for the audience to care, and identifying problems that you faced, you can begin to weave a story that will be build empathy in the audience. Once the audience connects with your work it is easier to add the tension to the story.

Театр оперы и балета. Зал

A give and take interaction between you and the audience

Once you have identified the elements of the story that you will use in your presentation, it is time to add in the tension. Keep in mind that, you don’t want to use up all the tense moments in the first five minutes of your talk. Showing all your cards early will feel like a laundry list of complaints about how hard your project was, and it makes for an weak climax to the story.  Add suspenseful moments throughout your story, think about what happened first and how that led to the next problem you had to overcome. This can be as simple as “the first experiment failed so we went to plan B”. There likely has been been multiple problems to the research, and you can lead the audience through the narrative introducing the next conflict in a logical order as you go along. Remember to allow your audience question how you resolved the conflicts, but don’t just spoon feed all the answers right away give allow for space in your presentation before you resolve each problem.

Tension can also be built up by convincing the audience that they are “missing out” by not engaging in the presentation. 4  Marketers use this tactic all the time with adverts saying things like “By knowing these three secrets to finance you can be rich too, but only for a limited time!”. Using the correct language and visuals makes us think we will miss out and so the audience wants to know more. By being the speaker at a presentation you are in control of all the information and therefore can control who has access and by how much. 4 Use this power by dropping hints throughout the presentation, for example you can say something like this, “I’m going to share with you the secret to how this molecule works to chelate iron, but first let me tell you about X”. The point is that you are controlling the flow of information, and can dose it out slowly to the audience.  This power allows the speaker to create tension where and when they want since they can control these aspects which create tension.

By using tension in your presentation you will have another tool by which to get the audience to engage with your work. Being able to craft a good presentation takes practice so remember to try different points where you create tension, and where you reveal the outcome. With a little practice you will be well on your way to creating an interesting and exciting presentation.


1. Dollerup, C. (1970). The Concepts of “Tension”,“Intensity”, and “Suspense” in Short‐Story Theory. Orbis Litterarum, 25(4), 314-337.

2.  Lazzaro, N. (2004). Why we play games: Four keys to more emotion without story.

3. Stromberg, P. G., (Jun 18, 2010) The Mysteries of Suspense Why do we love suspense?

4. Walsh, M., (May + June 2013). Harnessing the power of positive tension.

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