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Research and storytelling - two enemies or friends?

“We don’t need storytelling in research. we know how to write and read scientific publications. Everybody understands the format, scientific language. Storytelling is just something fancy”.

How often does this thought cross your mind?

I will challenge the scientists among us to see the value of storytelling in research. Maybe storytelling is not directly suitable for scientific publications, but for any other form of scientific communication and information sharing, storytelling adds value.  In this article I will share my thought about why and how, focusing on scientific presentations and storytelling.

Storytelling is about telling stories, grabbing attention of others and pulling them into the story you want to tell. Storytelling is also about heroes, mentors and the journey. And as a researcher, don’t you want to draw others into your research story?

Think about situation where you are with friends in a bar, around a campfire and one friend always steals the show. When this friend starts to talk, everybody stops talking and starts listening.  I believe that each of us is such a person and with some help can be a great storyteller about research topics, whether it is at home among family and friends or at work with colleagues, conferences and workshops.

I love to present and tell stories, research and all kind of other stories and would like to share some tips and advice in this article.

A good presentation has some key components: the content, the slides or other ways to show the information and the speaker. We tend to focus on the content and format of the content, but the speaker can make or break the message.  The speaker or presenter is KEY in a presentation.  The presenter decides about which content to share, how to share it and consciously and subconsciously, also decide which part of the content people will remember.

The impact of body language, how the voice is being used, speed of language and appearance has more impact on listeners you might expect.  And don’t forget the feeling of contacting with your audience.  Practicing, film it, evaluating yourself and/or with a coach will help improve this part to show confidence during presentations.

Before you start working in PowerPoint or in another program, first do some analysis for the presentation, I always start mind mapping and drawing visuals.

  • Who are you talking to? What could be in it for them?
  • What is absolutely the message that your listeners need to remember, even if you run out of time?

When this is clear, we can start building the presentation.  Mind mapping, drawing and writing are useful tools, before even using PowerPoint, Prezi or other digital presentation programs. Don’t forget, all information has the goal to support the key message. 

When you have selected your information, the next phase is about grouping and ordering. To help our brains and the listener’s brains to remember, the number “3” is important. Our brain processes information the best when it is grouped per 3 topics, 3 subthemes, everything in 3, and information mentioned 3 times. 

For a presentation, this could lead to 3 main themes, 3 subthemes per main theme, 3 key words on slides etc. Even while you are talking, take your audience by the hand by mentioning that you will talk about the 1st topic, then the 2nd topic and will close with the 3rd topic and soforth.  Our brain wants to associate and connect the information and leading your audience in this way will help process the information in their brains.

The same advice of 3 times can also be used for your key message. Mention your key message at least 3 times during your presentation and preferably 3 times in a different way. Same message in different words, using a metaphor or whatever you can think of which will help to get your message across.

Everything explained up to now can be considered as main basis and baseline for presenting. These advices are like the tip of the iceberg in presenting and presentations.

And now storytelling will be connected to the above-mentioned basis. Storytelling is the icing on the cake in presentations!  Storytelling will help your audience to connect and associate with your content. Storytelling is a friend for research.

Storytelling has heroes, challenges mentors and a new higher end result than the beginning of the story. The Disney animations are very clear examples of storytelling. There is always a main character which is poor, sick or in a bad shape. The main character dreams of a new world and fights and struggles to reach that new world.

Bring these elements into your presentation, check you content and find a hero in your content, maybe it is the scientist who discovered a cell after a range of a failed experiment. Maybe it is the medicine or treatment, maybe the hero is the ill person who can be cured with the discovery in your story.  These examples may look big, but you can also find small heroes in the content. When you get used to this way of thinking and presenting, you will get lively and vivid presentations which will draw the attention of your audience and put the emphasis on you and your message.

As mentioned above, presenting and public speaking is a skill and can be trained and improved like any other skill. The advices in this article are starting points and key elements to think about when starting to prepare for a presentation.

Presenting and storytelling is a true skill, in the same way as scientific writing or doing research is. It needs guidance, practice, trial and error, practice, finetuning, evolving effort and above all:  pleasure and joy to prepare and tell about it.

Written by Nardy Robben
Image from Freepik

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