Star Wars, Frodo, and Scientific Presentations

You may not know it, but a scientific presentation can be as thrilling to watch as Star Wars Episode VI! *gasp* Did she just say that?! How can that be? Science is boring! Scientists are boring! They can only speak in monotone voices! There is NO WAY science can be exciting. When you break down the common components of a scientific presentation, it can be easy to see how science can come across as boring.

  1. Introduction: Relevant background is introduced to set the context for the remainder of the presentation.
  2. Question: What scientific question are you asking in your research? What is your hypothesis?
  3. Results: Data that answers your question and supports your hypothesis.
  4. Conclusion: A summary of the results and how they support your hypothesis.

Photo by JD Hancock under Creative Commons

But science IS exciting. A well-told scientific story contains all of the components of a dramatic film following an unlikely hero on an impossible journey (think Frodo and the Ring). Except the scientist is that hero—the protagonist on a quest to solve a problem so challenging that no one has been able to solve it before. What if we rewrite the common components of a scientific presentation with a little more storytelling flair?

  1. Introduce the characters and establish a backstory. This is important information for the audience to understand the context of the presentation Think about how quickly we learn about Luke’s unusual talents and his orphan status in Episode IV. What are the main things your audience needs to know to understand the rest of your presentation? Don’t forget to refer back to these things throughout the story as a reminder!
  2. Present the Quest. What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it important? What have other people done and how did they fail? What are you going to show us that is different?
  3. Begin your journey. You’ve presented your goal, now how are you going get there? Your plan of attack shouldn’t be a secret. Layout what you plan to do so the audience has something to follow—like a map with the trail marked. However, don’t feel like you can only talk about the positive experiments. Whether it is due to limited time or a scientist’s ego, many researchers only address the successful parts of their journey. No story is interesting without the hiccups along the way. A story that followed Frodo simply walking to Mount Doom with no challenges along the way would have been extremely boring. Although not ALL trials need to be addressed, a thoughtful presentation that includes some of the dark alleyways of failed experiments inherent to research adds color and intrigue to the story.
  4. Plot Twist! Along with number 3, the twists and turns of a scientific journey provide excitement. Did your original hypothesis change after a key experiment? Did a lab mistake result in a successful result therefore changing the trajectory of your research? Did you have an “Aha!” moment?
  5. The Happy Ending. No story is complete without a happy ending. Science is an ongoing multi-part series. Each episode has a feeling of resolution that leaves the audience feeling comfortable, but still a little excited for what comes next.

Science is Fun and Exciting! As scientists we can sometimes fall into the trap of boring presentation structures simply because that is how people have always done it. But we don’t have to! Your research is exciting. Just make sure other people know that as well.