Do You Have Mysterious Dragons in Your Research?

Joseph Barber wants you to bring excitement and story-telling to the way you talk about your research.

January 26, 2015

Stop reading this post! I know you've just started, but what I say might make more sense if you take a few minutes to watch this video. You don’t have to watch it all – just the first few minutes is fine – and do come back to this post once you are done.

Deep down, I think that everyone dreams that they could one day stand up and deliver a mind-blowing, heartstring-tugging, or perspective-changing talk about their own research that looks and feels like this (or like many of the other TED-talk presentations you may have seen). What’s more, we all would like to imagine ourselves seeming so composed, fluent, and engaging while giving this imaginary talk. I mean, where are his notes? Where is the lectern to hide behind? Why doesn’t he seem to be shaking?

The truth is that you can probably give a talk like this (not with all the dancing perhaps) – but it takes work. Don’t be fooled by the smoothness of these speakers (some are more wired than others), because very few people can pull off something that looks this natural without a lot of practice (sometimes years of practice) and preparation – and it is perfectly natural to feel very envious of people who can do this (I am thinking of you, brother of mine!). One certain truth is that everyone who stands up to give these talks will feel nervous on the inside, even if they seem calm on the outside. They happily admit that they feel nervous, because this type of nervous stress is just your body getting ready for action. It is not a negative state – it is an adaptive one.

These aren’t the types of talks you usually see at academic conferences or during job talks (though perhaps they should be), so I am talking more about engaging the general public and professionals outside your field of research. Looking cool and composed is important, but if what you are saying is not engaging and attention-grabbing, then it is all for nothing. The really hard part of talking about your research is coming up with the content. Well ... you actually have the content already if you have done any sort of research (and that has been pretty hard, right?), so it is perhaps more accurate to say that the really tricky part is coming up with a story that makes your content make sense.

Most of you have probably been to a workshop where someone has told you how to present your research in formal academic settings. You’ll get important and good advice from these workshops, including:

  • Don’t have cluttered PowerPoint slides with awkwardly contrasting colors that make your eyes bleed by looking at them.
  • Don’t read each bullet point word-for-word.
  • Don’t read from a pre-prepared script.
  • Don’t look at the screen behind you – look at the audience in front of you

There are fewer workshops that focus on how to tell stories about your research, though, and this is a lost opportunity. If you sit down and think about all the times you talk about your research, then you’ll probably find that you spend much more time talking about your research outside of formal presentation venues (e.g., conferences, job talks) than you do within them. Even talking about your research in a classroom setting as part of a lecture is a more informal setting where traditional, presentation-style approaches are probably going to be less effective than story-based approaches. Talking about your research in all of these informal settings is very important, because your research is a direct extension of you and your professional identity, and has been for the last three or more years – even if you are now no longer actively involved in research work. If your research sounds exciting and relevant, then you become exciting and relevant. If your research sounds confusing, dull and lifeless then you…, well, you get the idea.

If my experience reading some of the world’s best (and worst) literature has taught me anything, it is that all of the best stories have dragons in them. O.K. – many of the best ones have dragons, or mention dragons, or contain some dragon-like concept. Whenever there is a dragon, or something  that could potentially represent a dragon, then you tend to have stories that involve some element of fear, uncertainty, mystery, terror, desperation, curiosity, adventure, stress, adversity, and so on. These emotional experiences are an important part of storytelling because they provide one way to engage the audience at both a cognitive and affective level. Qualitative ethnographic data, multivariate statistics, and 80,000-word theses don’t have the same effect by themselves.

Let’s take mystery as an example. Mysteries generally involve questions:

  • Do aliens really come to earth to abduct humans?
  • Is there a Bigfoot?
  • Why did the chicken cross the road?

Fortuitously, research also involves questions, so you immediately have the beginnings of a mystery to talk about. If you can tap into the mystery part of your research questions then you are on the right track to telling an interesting story. But the mystery isn’t just about your topic, because while the long-dead German poet featured in your research is a necessary part of the story, he cannot be its leading character – you are! You must play the role of both the narrator and the leading actor/actress, because part of the mystery people can be wrapped up in is why on earth you have been trying to answer your questions in the first place – what is your motivation? People make connections with other people (and their research). Research that lacks a human component is just abstract research, and many people would have a hard time relating to it without being able to live vicariously through you. So consider some of these questions for your mystery/drama:

  • What got you interested in your research topic?
  • How did you come up with your specific questions?
  • What didn’t people know before you started?
  • What were some of the obstacles in your way to finding the answers that you have been searching for?
  • What have you learned from your research – not just in terms of your findings, but about yourself, and your own thoughts, hopes, and dreams?
  • What can you tell me about your research story that I can tell my colleagues to make me sound much smarter than I am?

This last question is important. When people read a good book, they will often say to their friends something like this, “You should read it. It made me cry and laugh; you’ll really enjoy it." Many books are about the experience, not necessarily the details of the actual content. You can enjoy a book without remembering any of the details. The first time you read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, can you honestly say that you walked away knowing all of the names or people and places? It didn’t change your enjoyment of the story if you couldn’t (your brain could tell them apart while you were reading, and that was good enough). You do actually want people to walk away with a specific take-away point when it comes to your research, though.

You’ve worked hard to find some answers to the hard questions you have been asking, and it sort of defeats the point if you can’t share some of your findings in context of why these findings are important or relevant. So your research story can’t just be an experience; it has to be a learning experience. Pick a finding – try focusing on just one or two – and construct your story around it. Thus, I now know that superfluids can slow photons down to 60kph (see the first video above at around 2:45), and this is likely to be one of those facts my brain will never, ever forget – most likely because it was paired with an image so powerful and clear. If nothing else, having these takeaways can help you to figure out if you have been successful with your storytelling over and above subjective measures of how much people may have enjoyed, or were engaged by, your story.

Talking about your research using stories (ideally with some dragon-like elements) can help you in all sorts of situations – networking with faculty and professionals in different career fields, pitching your idea for a book, getting grant officers excited about funding your research, making a good impression on the dean during a campus interview, and helping people who know nothing about you or your research develop a newfound interest in and respect for who you are and what you do.



Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.


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