With a background as a researcher in the field of epidemiology and infectious diseases, I have produced more than my share in life of tables, graphs and charts. Often a research project starts with an exciting issue. What is the cause of an outbreak? How effective is a new vaccine? Does a certain infectious disease increase the risk of developing cancer later in life? How does infections spread in the community?
Based on these research questions, designing a study that is both feasible to implement and really provides answers to the questions is also a fascinating challenge. Often it is a long, laborious and costly journey from the first idea to the moment when the results are finally ready and the interesting findings for the first time are to be reported to an eagerly anticipating audience at a scientific conference.
The PowerPoint presentation is prepared, and with all the interesting data we have, it is filled with just the kind of tables, graphs and charts I mentioned in the first sentence. And we have so much interesting data that we want to squeeze into the 15-minute-long presentation. Everything is set for an exciting moment, but instead the audience looks bored, more than half are fiddling with their smart phones, and the elderly professor in the third row seems to be deeply asleep. What went wrong???
We humans have evolved as a species on the African savannah, where our ancestors shared their experiences through stories told during long evenings around the campfire. As there was a long distance between the small groups of people, and encounters with strangers did not happen very often, the wanderers from far away could count on a grateful audience when they came with news and accounts of the exciting adventures they had been involved in during their travels.
The human ability to convey experiences from generation to generation through oral tales has been decisive for our ability to survive, spread across the globe, and develop the communities in which we live. To tell and listen to a good story has been a survival advantage and is therefore deeply engraved in our genes.
An effective story touches the listener emotionally. It contains events and situations where the audience recognises themselves and it often follows a familiar narrative.
Perhaps the most famous narrative is “The journey of the heroe”, describing an ordinary person without any obvious abilities, who is drawn in a situation beyond the own control where he or she encounters almost superhuman challenges and times of deepest despair to towards the end be able to mount both physical power and personal character and strength to win over evil and gain a well-deserved reward in the form of gold and the heart’s love.
The power of this story is so strong that it has survived from the antique tales more than 2,000 years ago (and certainly significantly longer before that) to today’s Hollywood movies.
If we are naturally and emotionally absorbed by the heroic journey and afterwards easily can remember both the story and the learning point, the same does not happen naturally when we are fed with facts and statistics. Embracing the meanings of a story happens automatically and without any effort, while interpreting a chart requires a good amount of mental energy. And if we are drowned by several tables or charts in a short period of time, we will quickly drift far away with our minds.
If you want to convey an important message to an audience, it may therefore be useful to connect the message to a story where you may want to be personal. The story does not necessarily need to follow a particular narrative, but it should be sufficiently interesting and relevant to capture the interests of the audience. Once you get their attention, you can then pick two or three specific items that you want to stick in the minds of your audience and connect these items to your story.
The main points may be supported by your facts (and must be done so if it is a scientific lecture), but expect it to be an exceptional event when someone actually will remember the exact figures you presented. But don’t let that discourage you. The important thing is that you have reached out with your message – not the figures behind.
With a good and engaging story, you can make a lasting impression on your audience and get them committed for your cause that may even be long-term. Without a story behind your facts, the result may instead stop at a yawn. I wish that this was something I was taught during my research education and not through my own experience.
If you want inspiration how this can be done in practice, have a look at Hans Rosling’s fascinating Ted Talk about the magic washing machine.