What’s Your Story?

Last quarter, I taught a course on research methods in TOC, which gave me an opportunity to think through many aspects of research. I was promoting a human-centric perspective on research: how to facilitate better research by addressing the conditions needed for an individual researcher and groups of researchers to succeed. As science is a communal effort, the communication of science is critical, and thus one of the topics we covered is oral presentations.

There are plenty of resources about research talks, and mostly they emphasize form over matter. How many words in a slide? How many slides in a talk? how to and how not to use font colors? How to and how not to use animation? and so on. While all of these are important, I find that the failing of many research talks is on a much more basic level.

Think back to a research talk you heard recently, or to one you heard a few months ago. You may remember how you felt and what you thought of the talk but what do you remember of this talk in terms of content? Most of us will find that we don’t remember much, I rarely do. Yet in our presentations, we often follow a research-paper-like mold and squeeze in many little details that are somehow important to us, forgetting that they will all vanish in our audience’s memory soon after (or completely missed in the first place). Giving a talk (writing a paper, writing a blog post etc.) is about communication: who is your audience? what are the limitation of the medium? what is the message you want to convey? Since so little stays with the audience long term, it makes sense to make sure that this little will be what seems most important for you to convey.

The idea I am promoting here is not new, and there are various techniques towards this goal. One (which I think Oded Goldreich shared with me), is to think of audience’s attention as a limited currency. Whenever you share a big idea you spend a big token and other ideas cost a smaller token. Imagine you have one or two big tokens and a few smaller tokens. Another approach, emphasizes the notion of a premise. The idea promoted here is that a talk needs a premise and this should be the title of the talk. Furthermore, every slide needs a premise and it should be the title of the slide. A premise is a main idea and is a complete sentence. It is not unusual to find a slide titled “Analysis” or “Efficiency” but neither of these is a premise. “Problem X has an efficient algorithm” could be. The talk’s premise could help you distill what you want the audience to take out of your talk. It also helps shape the talk, as everything that doesn’t serve the premise shouldn’t be there. Note that each paper can provoke many different premises and thus many different talks.

Here I want to play with a different idea, that I find intriguing, even if it may seem a bit extreme. It will not be controversial that a good talk (and paper) tells a story. After all, humans understand and remember narratives. But could we take inspiration from the form of storytelling in fiction writing? A vast literature, classifies different kinds of stories and explores their templates (see for example this short discussion).  Can we find analogues to these types in scientific research talks?

The type of story that is easiest to relate to is the Quest/Hero’s Journey (think Lord of the Rings). These have several distinct ingredients: a call to adventure, tests, allies, enemies, ordeal, reward, victorious return. Some research talks that follow this template do it well and preserve a sense of suspense and excitement, others seem like a long list of problems and the tricks that the work uses to handle them.

I believe that many other story templates can find analogues is research talks as well. Here are my initial attempts:

  • Coming of age stories – this area of research previously only had naive ideas but this works brings significant depth.
  • The Underdog (think David and Goliath): a modest technique that concurred a great challenge.
  • Rags to Riches (think the Ugly Duckling): an area or technique that were not successful prove powerful.
    • Similarly: Rebirth (reinvention, renewal).
  • Comedy (or the Clarity Tale) – conceptual works shedding a new perspective.
  • Tragedy (or the Cautionary Tale) – Some impossibility results come to mind (couldn’t we view Arrow’s impossibility theorem as being tragic?)
  • Redemption stories: the field so far has missed the point, was misleading or harmful, but this work makes amends.

Can you suggest papers and a story type that could fit them?

2 Comments on What’s Your Story?

  1. I think that the story-telling approach is more suitable when communicating with a broader audience, rather than people in your immediate field. Such as when giving a survey talk, writing a grant proposal, giving a TED talk, etc.

    For a scientific paper or a talk about it, I usually think of the goal as introducing your audience to tools that they may be able to use for their own research. From the big new ideas, to new connections, to these little tricks that are needed to solve specific technical problems. From this perspective, a boring talk that conveys a new trick to four people in the audience advances science more than a lively talk that doesn’t teach anyone in the audience anything new.


  2. Michel Schellekens // May 4, 2020 at 2:35 am // Reply

    Interesting discussion on identifying story structure in research articles. Survey papers, TAOCP and Euclid’s elements could be viewed as “milieu stories” (O. S. Card’s terminology, where the interest derives in a significant part from exploring various aspects of the world under consideration, partly the case in LOTR). Scientific work can convey a sense of wonder–a key aspect of storytelling. Godel’s results come to mind or even the Grzegorczyk hierarchy. There are full blown hero’s journeys in the history of maths or computer science. I’m not sure that single articles convey this structure, though some articles in medical science come close. When viewed in a historic context, CS papers can represent the culmination of the journey.


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