Friday, March 23, 2012

How to Tell a Story: Science Edition

Recently I watched a really great Ph.D. dissertation defense, and it got me thinking:
What was so great about it?

While there are many factors that go into a good presentation (and you can read all about them at Neurodojo: the Zen of Presentations parts 1-1bazillion), but I think there is a single golden rule after which all other rules are secondary.

Use as few words as possible.  

This doesn't mean 'say as little as possible'.
It means say a lot, but make your points using the minimum number of words necessary.

Aside from the obvious cutting out 'ummms' and 'likes' that can be distracting, simply saying what you are going to say without caveats and without extra phrases is always the best way to go.

Here's a secret about me: In my pre-neuroscience life, I spent 2 years teaching special education at an elementary school.  This job involved herding distracted children and trying to teach them things in the most interesting and engaging way possible. The idea being that if the students are engaged with the lesson they will be less likely to throw their pencil box across the room or knock their desk over (both unfortunately frequent occurrences).

One infinitely transferable lesson I learned was 'how to tell a story'. 

The method was something like this:

1.  Read the story to yourself.
2. Write the story down in 10 sentences.
3. Write the story down in 5 sentences.
4. Write the story down in 1 sentence.
5. Tell the story at the level of detail appropriate for the situation. 

 Simple, right? And obviously applicable to scientific communication. This is a step by step method for crafting a good elevator story.  It is also something everyone should do before they make a poster, give a presentation, or even write a paper.  In fact, you should stop what you are doing right now and try to write down your dissertation or current project in 10, 5 and 1 sentence.

Becoming an expert on something is not simply knowing all the details about it.  It's also knowing which ones are critical to the main point and which ones are not.

© TheCellularScale


  1. How could I not comment this? Great post, I am also against words pollution!

  2. Wait...I defended this morning. Were you there? ;)

  3. haha...I am an artist against word pollution. I probably should practice those steps more often!