Nancy gives a masterclass

24 08 2011

I’ve just stumbled upon what might just be the most interesting presentation about presentations ever presented.

We’ve spoken a lot about structure and story in successful presentations. Nancy Duarte, the woman who’s company [Duarte] famously produced the visuals for Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, breaks down structure in a fascinating TEDx talk.

The whole talk can be seen here. (18mins)

Nancy says so many interesting things it is difficult to know what to speak about first. I’m sure I’ll revisit this talk in future posts. What I really want to share with you is here is how important she says structure is in any presentation. Whilst the talk she gives doesn’t explicitly reference science presentations the essential message is one that is of vital significance across all presentations and we can use it to make our science presentations better.

Nancy has studied the structure of thousands of presentations and she has detected a pattern in the best.

According to Nancy, every speech should contain an idea. The presenter’s job is to reveal that idea and to help the audience not only understand it but to make them feel as passionately about that idea as they do. Nancy reckons if the presenter can be persuasive enough, not only can they change what the audience thinks but through communicating their passion, change the world.

The best way to present that idea is with story. As Nancy says; “There is something magical about a story structure that makes [the message of the story] easily ingested and then recalled by the person receiving it”.

Most presentations don’t contain story and that is the reason most presentations don’t move us in the way stories do. Whilst we sit rapt as we listen to a storyteller and are able to recall the story long after they have finished we doze off during most presentations and can’t remember what was said moments after.

Nancy’s message is clear: we need to incorporate story into our presentations.

In 1863 Gustaf Freytag drew a diagram of his Five Act dramatic story structure. He proposed stories begin with Exposition (a setting forth of meaning or intent), before moving onto Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and then ending with Denouement (a resolution, literally the unraveling).

Nancy wondered if this pattern could be imposed on classic examples of oratory and it turned out that it could. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech fits this perfectly. Now you might have guessed that a classic orator like MLK would employ these devices but it turns out is that it also fits the best modern day presentations as well. In her talk Nancy cites Steve Jobs’ 2007 original iPhone presentation and this fits it just as well.

But what is really exciting is that anyone can copy this this classic structure and we could be using it as science presenters to make our presentations more compelling and memorable. How would you apply this to a typical science presentation?

1. An idea

As has already been said you need to start with an idea. You should be able to explain to yourself and others in a single sentence what the point is of your talk. Teachers might talk about a learning intention, in the past we have called this the story, others might call this the pitch or the hook. Whatever you call it your presentation must have it.

Presentations that are just a collection of unrelated demos won’t contain an idea. And “Science is Fun!!” isn’t enough of an idea to grab most people. Even themed presentations could generally go much further.

One such idea might be to explain “the importance of electromagnetic fields and induction”. Whilst it is better to have an idea than not this idea is a bit dry. Could we improve on this idea further? How’s about instead of the idea being to explain the science why not introduce an element of story: “every single electrical device we use was made possible by a single science experiment conceived of by man who received no formal education”.

2. The beginning

Once your idea has been clearly identified then your talk should begin with Exposition. You need to set out your talk. You do this by explaining the What is and comparing it to the What could be.

The What is is the status quo, it is a compelling question that few people would have considered or a challenge which needs addressing. In the case of our electromagnetic example it could be where you point out that almost everything we rely on for our modern lifestyles, everything that we hold dear uses electrical energy to run.

But it is not enough just to describe the What is you need to make your audience care, to feel compelled to follow you as you address the issues of your exposition. You do this by comparing the What is to the What could be. The What could be isn’t just the answer to the question, it is what having the answer to the question would mean. It isn’t just how things could be different, it is why those differences would make an impact on everyone’s life. In our electromagnetic example it might be to vividly imagine a world with no electricity, or to imagine a world where this electricity suddenly stops and no-one has the knowledge to turn it back on.

Nancy advises us to try to make the height of that first step as big as possible. By making the distance between the initial What is and What could be as large as possible you bait the hook, you draw your audience closer to the camp fire, you use this classic story telling technique to make your audience not only pay attention but to begin to care as much as you do about what you are about to tell them.

3. The middle

Once you have made that first large step up then the middle section of your presentation should be a series of similar steps that follow the same process. If you are trying to change someone’s attitude then each of these steps might address a point of resistance to your idea. In a science presentation these steps might be a breakdown of all the background knowledge you need to have to fully appreciate the bigger picture. Whatever the content of the presentation it can still be presented using the What is/What could be storytelling technique.

In our electromagnetic example instead of explaining that Faraday discovered induction one step might describe the What is as Faraday having made movement from electricity and magnetism but the What could be as his long held but longer frustrated conviction that magnetism and movement could make electricity.

4. The ending

The last change of direction after you have made your case should be what Nancy calls “the new bliss” which is such a better way of describing a plenary and so much more inspiring than a summary. It is here that you tell the audience the denouement, you bring all the strands together to make up that bigger picture. Because you are telling a story and not just setting out facts you end by resolving that original conflict.

In our electromagnetic example you might compare the seeming insignificance of turning a small magnet in a wire with the seeming complexity of a nuclear power station but show the significance of those first experiments. You might go back to imagine a world without electricity and remind them of the work of that one untutored scientist who made it all possible.

I highly recommend taking 20mins or so to watch the presentation. As I said earlier in the post there is so much that could be taken out of it not least how nervous she appears at the start but how passionate and engrossed she becomes as she delves deeper into her subject but I’ll leave that for another day. As an example the diagram above describes Steve Jobs’ iPhone presentation…

But I hope here I’ve whetted your appetite and done justice to Nancy’s ideas about structure.

The way we approach our science presentations can always be improved upon. I personally would pay attention more to a story about electromagnetic ubiquity and the characters behind the discoveries and probably recall more of the science than if I was just being lectured to. I have one show I present that I think follows this structure pretty closely but I’m going to spend the next couple of hours seeing how I can introduce these concepts into my other shows.


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