What's your message?: finding the foundation of a great science presentation
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Presenting science: finding the structure

Road[image: Harish Krishna on Flikr]

In the previous two posts of this series, I’ve outlined some of the challenges facing scientists presenting to a non-specialist audience, and the need for a clear message. Once you've clarified your message, you need to find the structure that will work best for it.

The thoughts in this final post arise from my work with the seven Award Lecturers at this year’s British Science Festival (2018, at the University of Hull).They were consistently inspiring.

When I’m working with scientists on scicomm presentations, creating the structure is usually the most exciting part of the job. Every presentation takes its own shape, and our task is to discover that structure together.

So making rules about structure is pretty well impossible. But I think we can lay down three broad principles.

First, the presentation structures that succeed are always dynamic. They move in some way from beginning to end. That movement might be a straight line; it may be a tortuous meander; it may be a journey that suddenly changes direction.


Wineglass_model_for_IMRaD_structure.Now, you could present your research as a journey. Simply adapt the structure of a research paper:

  • Introduction (what was the problem?)
  • Methodology (what did you do?)
  • Results (What did you find?)
  • Discussion (what did you think about it?)
  • Conclusion (what have you proved?)

This is the classic IMRAD structure. And it might work for the audience in a scientific conference. That’s to say: it’s likely to make them feel comfortable and safe and maybe a bit sleepy…

But IMRAD is unlikely to work with a non-specialist audience. The problem is that the place where your research starts is unlikely to be a place that non-specialists would recognise or understand.

You have to start somewhere the audience finds familiar.

And then you have to entertain them.

Deep down, every audience wants a performance. Think of a simple tune, or a joke, or a magic trick. (Good science demos, of course, are very like magic tricks.) They all arouse expectations, and then fulfil them. Many scientific presentations are static: they’re all fulfilment.  (‘Make your point, then give the evidence.’). Your structure has to set up an expectation - and then fulfil it. For many researchers, this realisation is often an 'aha!' moment.

The structure you're looking for, then, is dynamic. It must move. It's not the structure of a paper; it's the structure of a performance.

All gripping performances contain moments of suspense and surprise. Create a mystery.  The more intriguing, the better. (Think of all those science documentaries in which, about halfway through, the narrator’s voice deepens and we hear the words: “And at that point they discovered something utterly astounding.”) It doesn’t have to be a burning controversy.  A life cycle with intriguing gaps; an ancient manufacturing process that remains a mystery to this very day; a mismatch between theory and findings; all of these can give you the hook that will capture your audience’s attention.  

Or think of a story. Every story follows a similar structure.

  • Situation: which everyone in the audience recognises.
  • Problem: which complicates the situation and makes in interesting, adding tension.
  • Question: how is the crisis going to be resolved?
  • Response: “…and they all lived happily ever after/… and the beast was slain/ … and the hero discovered something new about himself/herself/the world.”

FreytagpyramidThere are plenty of models around to help you develop a narrative. Take a look at the the Freytag Triangle, ‘SPQR’; and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. The trick is to ask what would work for your audience: what stories work for them? Look for the points of arousal in your narrative: the moments of mystery, choice, uncertainty, conflict. (“Why did that happen? Why did that fail? How can we fix this?”)

Arrange your structure around these turning points.  (I sometimes call them ‘hinges’.)

Second, narrative isn’t everything.  Scicomm practitioners and consultants can become obsessed with storytelling. But other kinds of discourse can perform. Some kinds of explanation, for example, are inherently dynamic. Think of contrast (the difference between then and now, here and there, us and them). Cause and effect, too, can be gripping, especially if the effect is surprising. (Science demos, again...) A process, by contrast, might be dynamic but it probably lacks suspense or surprise (and a process that involves conflict probably isn’t a very effective process). Lists of examples and carefully organised categories tend to be utterly boring. (Especially on slides.)

Argument, of course, is packed with drama. Make a striking or controversial claim, and your audience will be gripped.

Third, let your intuition help you.  Caroline Goyder suggests factoring in dream time.  Create a loose framework, she says, “as soon as the invitation to present goes in the diary.” “Once you have that frame,” she says, “your unconscious will get to work and the idea will grow, even while you’re doing other things.”  I’d also suggest talking your material through with a (preferably non-scientific) friend.  Where do their eyes light up?  What fascinates them?  Those moments are potential hinges.

Discovering the structure that makes a science presentation fizz is one of the most exciting parts of my job. We never know what that structure will be when we start exploring. But we always know it when we find it.

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