12 March 2015

The Zen of Presentations, Part 68: Literally too literal

I’ve been trying to teach my biology students about the importance of narrative in presentations. As part of their task, I’ve been using two parts of the techniques elaborated in the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking (reviewed here).

Summarize your talk in a single thematic word.

Summarize your talk in a single, “And... but... therefore” sentence.

Students are finding this a much harder task than I expected. I was particularly surprised by how many of them stumbled over drilling down their talk to just one word.

Over and over again, students are submitting just be something that is in the paper. If I give them a paper on coral reef ecosystems, their word is, “coral.”

It would be like someone asked to write a single word for last year’s movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and saying, “spaceships.” Or worse, “galaxies.” Sure, there are spaceships in the movie, but that isn’t the theme of the story.

Basically the movie is about characters with a traumatic family history getting over their trauma to forge a new family. Sure, the movie uses the word “friend” but the point is still clear. Drax lost his whole family; Gamora’s family was abusive; Peter Quill’s dad abandoned him, his mom died, and he was adopted; and Rocket and Groot are orphans who’ve never really had parents. The movie is all about these characters learning to surmount their history, communicate, and forge a new family. (From here.)

“Teamwork” or “family” or “trauma” might be better.

This literal take on their topics carries through the main presentation. Over and over again, students get focused on the minutia. They spend an enormous amount of time on minor points. When presenting a singe scientific paper, a large number of students spend a lot of time on methods, up to and including which institutional board did the ethics review for the experiments.

It may be that the sort of education that science majors get tends to be way focused on details, and seemingly irrelevant details are often exactly the sort of knowledge students are tested on. I don’t know how to get them out of their heads and stepping back to see more “forest” and less on “every leaf on every tree.”

Related posts

Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

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