What a long trip can teach you about complex information in storytelling

You’re an expert in your field and have to give a presentation to a non-expert audience. You’ve heard about storytelling, but you aren’t sure how a story can accommodate the complex information that you want to share. What do you do?

This is the kind of doubt I encounter regularly in my workshops.

The fact is that academics and any kind of expert often work with complicated information. There’s a lot to know before anyone can achieve a deep understanding of a topic, let alone one that might be contested or debated. Academics are naturally hesitant to allow uncertainty to creep into their stories. It’s unprofessional and also uncomfortable.

The easy way out of this is to avoid story all together. It’s a new form and frankly raises suspicions, both in storytellers and audiences. There’s a catch, though. Story is still the single most effective way to communicate. Stories stick better, they evoke more emotions, and they are the form of communication that humans are wired to receive best.

So, what’s an academic who wants to use story to do?

One approach is to do what I call front-loading the information. That means a presentation starts with a survey of important or relevant theories and concepts. It’s a laundry list of things the audience needs to know in order to understand the presentation that’s about to arrive. The presentation follows dotted with plenty of as-already-mentioneds and as-you-will-recalls.

I don’t know about you, but I can only just remember the names of a character in a movie I like, let alone a new-to-me theory or concept followed by two more and ten or twenty minutes of talking.

This is an approach that asks your audience to work and work hard in order to understand your presentation. They don’t want to work hard, though. They want your presentation delivered to their waiting ears, so they can soak it up and enjoy.

What that means is delivering the information they need when they need it.

It’s like taking a complicated trip. This December on a Friday night, I’ll take a bus to the train station and then train to the airport and a bus from the airport to a nearby hotel. I’ll stay overnight in the hotel and get up the next morning, take a bus back to the airport to fly through Paris to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to visit my family for Christmas. There will be four of us on this trip, and two are under 12.

This trip has been booked since before the summer vacation. I’ve got all the information in my email and on my calendars. But in the days before and during this trip, you can bet I’ll check that itinerary a dozen times. There will be at least three checks of the train time to coordinate with my husband and the bus schedule. We’ll check the flight time in the hotel in the evening and at least a couple times in the morning, even once we’ve checked in at the airport. And none of this includes the questions every half hour that our under-12 contingent will be asking. Come to think of it, I’m going to print them their own itineraries this year.

Are we just brainless travelers? No, we’re actually experienced travelers who know all about missing flights because one of us forgot to change our watch for daylight savings time and arriving at airports wedding dress in hand at the arrival time instead of departure time for an international flight (true stories, both). And that’s exactly why we check and recheck to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

We know that checking the flight time before we get on the bus is almost pointless because we’ll likely forget and check again in the evening and the morning again. We try as best we can to get the information we need when we need it so it’s most useful for us.

Think of your audiences as embarking on a complex trip with you, a journey. Give them the information they need when they need it. If you aren’t sure when they need the information, take it out of your presentation and go through your presentation step by step. When do you refer to complex theories or models? Can you get away with just explaining the part that you’re using in your presentation? Does your audience need the history of an idea or concept in order to follow your argument? Do they need a context in your field or will a couple facts be enough?

I call these moments deep dives. The structure of your story is set before you add these deep dives into background information. You already know who your hero is, the goal, the beginning, middle, and end. That gives you a rough outline that you can use for most any audience. You add the deep dives, the complex information your audience needs, depending on who they are and what they need to know.

So, in order to tell your complex story well, you need to understand your material and know who your audience is and what you’re trying to accomplish with them. You need to understand their level of knowledge and interest as well as what information they can be expected to digest orally in a few minutes.

Don’t count on your slides to explain everything. You’re telling the story. Your voice, your story is the one that counts. Everything on a screen is like Elton John’s band. You know they’re there, but you can’t remember their faces.

That means thinking in terms of your audience and their needs. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish with your audience and what they need to get that done. Tell them that, just that, and when they need it. They’ll appreciate your story more and be more likely to consider traveling with you again.

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