How to storify science? Hint: it’s in the structure, not the content

Since 2018, I have worked and trained hundreds of academics, researchers, and science enthusiasts at different stages of their career. My training sessions range from a half day workshop, for over 500 high school graduates (I know—crazy!), to a series of one-on-one sessions with distinguished professors who have been experts in their scientific fields for decades.

What I found striking was that, regardless of where people are in their career or comfort level with the content that they want to share (and this can be for a variety of mediums, but often most challenging when it is for a brief presentation), they often struggle with a similar problem: figuring out the story that they can tell for the duration that they have to tell it.

We hear it all the time now for science communication—tell a story! Tell a story! But what does that actually mean? What ‘telling a story’ means really is to follow the structure of a story. Easily put, it means to have a beginning, middle and end. It sounds so easy, but as I have pored through a number of draft presentations and listened to various practice talks, I always find myself holding a hand up and asking—why did you only give me the beginning of your talk halfway before you were done? 

My job so far has been to tell them, Hey, this bit is really cool and actually makes me care about the topic, please talk about this first! Or this bit is really complicated to make the first 5 minutes of your talk and I’m still not convinced I need to wake up my brain cells to process any of these yet. Another aspect of my job is often to remind people not to leave their ending to, well the end, because that is a sure way to have a talk that will end up ending abruptly. It sounds so easy, but it takes a lot of work to figure out what is the beginning, middle and end of your science story. But spend some time on that before you start fleshing out the entire thing and trust me, the rest actually will be a LOT easier.

Try following this simple 4-step guide when preparing for a talk:

1. The beginning should be easy to understand, pique curiosity, or be entertaining. Start with a ‘hook’ that will grab your audience’s attention and make them want to keep listening.

2. The middle is the science, and it’s important to give the audience sufficient material to comprehend and care about it. You can use various strategies to lead people through more complex ideas. (keep an eye out for future tips on the strategies we’ve tried and tested!)

3. The end is the finish line where both the presenter and the audience feel that something has been shared and received, that there is closure for everyone involved. It’s important not to leave thinking about the ending to the very end, as this can cause the talk to end abruptly. Plan out your ending in advance so you can wrap up your talk smoothly.

4. Many people who are very familiar with their topic may become “desensitized” to their own science and struggle to identify the most interesting parts for an uninitiated audience. It can be helpful to have someone else point out the interesting or important parts of the talk. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or help in figuring out the best way to tell your story.

Remember that an important aspect of science communication is the storytelling. By following the structure of a story, you can effectively communicate your research and ideas to an audience. Keep in mind the importance of the beginning, middle, and end, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or help in figuring out the best way to tell your story.

Published by Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

I am a "young" "academic" in a public institution trying to meet my KPIs while maintaining my sanity and humor.

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