The Knack of Great Storytelling
Every leader and executive I know agonizes about presentations: how to convey complex information, to entertain and inform, charm and challenge. Scientists are no different. If anything, they're rarely extroverts and hate any sense of dumbing down. But Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker, found a way to help.
In a letter to Science magazine, he explained his approach.
Tension and Momentum
First, start with the facts you need to communicate. Whittle these down to essentials and, if possible, to keywords. Put those words in your title.
Then, put the facts into what he calls "the universal narrative template," which is And/But/Therefore, or ABT. This gives tension that leads to a resolution: a sense of a journey. So if you start with your information (And) but only pile on information, you lose momentum and a sense of destination. So you have to move on to your challenges (But) and then imagine a resolution (Therefore).
But--taking his format to heart--be aware that this takes one more essential ingredient: time. Rush it, and you will have too many facts in the wrong place.
Therefore, organize the presentation well ahead of time and sleep on it: New ideas will occur to you, some of them improvements and some of them irrelevant. Taking time for the presentation to take up residence in your head will make you more comfortable with delivery, too.
Are there other ways to tell stories? Sure. But ABT works, and it helps even the most data driven to organize their thoughts into an accessible whole. Bringing order to chaos is what presentations are all about. And not just for the audience; for you, too.
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.