TELL ME A STORY! A PLEA FOR MORE COMPELLING CONFERENCE PRESENTATIONS

- post for the American Ornithological Society's journal blog, about an opinion piece I wrote

At one point during last year’s North American Ornithological Conference, I found myself rushing down the hallways to catch a talk by a senior scientist whose research I have long admired. As I took my seat and he began speaking, I was immediately struck with the thought: “Darn, why did I make this mistake again?”

My mistake? Deciding to attend his talk and, in the process, failing to remember that I loathe his presentation style. The slides are always filled to the brim with volumes of text and a seemingly endless number of teeny-tiny figures. And despite going through them at a sprinter’s pace, he somehow fails to finish in the allotted fifteen minutes. It happens every time. The audience experience is akin to watching an action-packed commercial but, in the end, having only a vague sense of what was being advertised.

That incident and many others propelled me to write the commentary “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations,” published this week in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. In it, I argue that scientists should spend less time trying to impress their audience with mountains of data and more time implementing principles of good storytelling. I know this probably elicits a negative reaction in some readers, but hear me out.

Stories aren’t a mode of communication restricted to fictional tales. They are the most effective way to package information so that others can process and remember it (which is really the whole point of communication, right?). It’s difficult to recall a series of random facts; it’s much easier to recall the details of an engaging story.

The nice thing about storytelling is that it is a natural fit for the scientific process. Dr. Randy Olson, author of the book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, defines a story as “a series of events that happen along the way in the search for a solution to a problem.” Sound familiar? As scientists, we are always in hot pursuit of a solution to a problem, but unfortunately we don’t always present our research that way.

So how can we change that? For starters, it’s not sufficient to package information in a logical order with a beginning (introduction), middle (methods and results), and end (conclusions). That’s obviously helpful, but I argue in the paper that you need to go a step further and develop a compelling plot—something that compels your audience to follow along with your journey of discovery. That can be accomplished by clearly articulating a problem to be solved and spending time convincing the audience why they should care about the problem in the first place.

In his book, Dr. Olson outlines a strategy that I find particularly helpful. He suggests framing your story’s plot by proclaiming something that scientists know and something else that scientists know, but then pointing out a critical unsolved problem or point of debate that, therefore, highlights a need for your particular study. He calls this his “and, but, therefore” template, which contrasts with the template used by many scientists: one that strings along a series of facts with “and, and, and” statements. There’s no drama in “and, and, and” statements, but there is with the “and, but, therefore” framework.

A key advantage of Dr. Olson’s approach is that—by setting the stage in an informative and captivating manner—you can bring your entire audience with you on your journey, not just the people who already understand and appreciate your field and study system. And that should be the ultimate goal: to engage the widest fraction of your audience as possible.

The ornithological community is doing important and interesting science, but we don’t always do a great job communicating it, even amongst ourselves. In my paper, I argue for more storytelling, but I also discuss a greater range of strategies for giving effective presentations, including the benefits of visually-engaging slides. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it is my hope that this opinion piece will generate thought and discussion about how to best communicate our science. We can’t afford to let important research be lost in a sea of ineffective communication.

Langin, KM. 2017. Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119: 321-326 [pdf]