What’s your strategy for explaining complex subjects to others?
Whether your business is tech marketing, medical sales, legal consulting, non-profit leadership, or something else, your career success is related to your ability to communicate difficult topics effectively. It can be easy to get tangled in the weeds of technical specifications, process flows, or product features. However, a story is likely to be more memorable and motivating than facts alone could ever be.
Even if you’re not a plate tectonics professor like Kip Hodges in the video below, the three rules of sharing stories like a scientist just might apply to your profession, too!
Rule #1 Simplicity: Don’t Hide Behind Technical Details
Yes, you absolutely should be the expert and know your stuff. Deep expertise is the ability to see patterns and trends in all the data and explain even the most complex processes simply. Don’t conceal the big idea behind too many acronyms or industry jargon. Molecular biologist and comedian Adam Ruben jokes about the temptations of bloated language in How to write like a scientist. Reduce the lingo and increase the simple! As Barry Bickmore and David Grandy of BYU noted in their essay, Science as Storytelling:
Scientists assume that nature is simple enough for human minds to understand.
Here’s a story about simplicity from a speech by Randy Olson, author of “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.”
“And then you go to a scientific meeting and you walk out in the lobby and everybody is buzzing about some talk that some guy just gave that was unbelievably good, and somebody says, ‘He told this incredible story about the system he works on,’ yada, yada. Well, that’s the first thing who through either a lot of hard work or some natural ability is able to take the whole mess of what they were doing for research and structure it into a story that everybody could stay with and follow.”
Rule #2 Build A Story Structure
It doesn’t matter if you’re explaining an enzyme, a legal process or how your new software works. Organizing data into a meaningful story arc is a skill well worth practicing. Have you established a conflict? Are characters developed? Creating anticipation and showing transformation will make the story structure come alive. As Kip Hodges said in the video above:
“…and at the same time as you’re collecting data, you’re ruminating on how to build a story out of that.
I ask them to emulate papers that other people have written, and really read those papers as literature. Not read them soley for the scientific content, but for how the story is built.
…and then I challenge them (students) to write things as a narrative.”
Rule #3 Listen for Story Improvements
Not done yet! Just as scientists remain continually alert for new ideas and information that will improve their stories, the rest of us can, too. When sharing a story, listen for reactions. At what points are heads nodding? When are people confused? What questions and counterpoints could help you improve the story for next time? To avoid asking these questions is just “talking for the sake of talking.” As Bickmore and Grandy say,“One must first come to the realization that science is not about establishing ‘the facts,’once for all, but about a process of weeding out bad explanations and replacing them with better ones.”
Scientific stories should be subject to an infinitely repeating process of evaluation meant to generate more and more useful stories.
Biologist Paul Grobstein says it this way:
There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.
Grobstein shares a personal account about story listening:
As a young research scientist, I was involved in a conflict between the proponents of two competing stories about how the nervous system develops. Each group tested its story by collecting new observations that seemed relevant given its story, and each challenged the validity of observations made by the other that seemed to conflict with its story. What emerged was a new, more comprehensive, and ultimately more useful story that accepted and made sense of both sets of observations and led on to new questions, observations, and stories.
Now that’s a wonderful example of story sharing leading to an ideal outcome!
*equation photo courtesy of beckstei