05 February 2014

The Zen of Presentations, part 65: Narrative templates for scientific presentations

People love templates. They can be great time-savers. But in the context of presentations, people often think of templates for PowerPoint slides, which are often overly busy and not well designed. Instead of using templates for slide design, try using a template for the script of your talk.

In Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking (reviewed here), Dorie Barton is quoted as saying, “Dude, it’ all the same story.” At SICB last month, Barton’s co-author, Randy Olson, elaborated. He talked about how a scientific paper can, in very broad strokes, follow Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” A key component of the monomyth is that there is an “ordinary world” (on top in the figure below) and a “special world” (on the bottom of the figure below).

The ordinary world is what is routine and familiar (think Kansas, Tatooine, the Shire); the special world is unknown, exciting, but also exhausting and dangerous (think Oz, the Death Star, Mordor). Olson pointed out that a scientific paper always starts off with the boring, mundane, and the known (Introduction). It may be the reason the first sentences of scientific papers are notoriously bland and general.

The paper then ventures into the unknown (Methods and Results), the new territory that the researchers are hoping to uncover. They then take what they learn, and bring it back to the ordinary world that they started in (Discussion).

Another strong structure for presentations is the “worm” presentation structure discussed by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate (it’s now available in a free online version here; reviewed here).

The core of a presentation structure, according to Duarte, is the contrast between “what is” and “what could be.” Again, scientific research often has the core of Duarte’s “worm” presentation structure built into it .

The “what is” is our background knowledge. The “what could be” is typically our hypotheses and predictions (click to enlarge).

As I said recently:

(T)here is an inherent connection between stories and experimental science: they are both about causes. A satisfying story is built around causal connections.

Good presentations can be analyzed in many different ways. For instance, the Gettysburg address follows both Randy Olson’s “And, but, therefore” template (analysis here), and Nancy Duarte’s “what is / what could be” presentation structure (analysis here).

Related posts

Storytelling is dead, long live narrative
Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review
The Zen of Presentations, Part 35: Another presentation book you must own

External links

Joseph Campbell was right. (Frodo, Harry, and Luke prove it.)

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