“Sometime they’ll give a presentation and nobody will come.” I experienced that again and again while I was a student and researcher. There are conference sessions in which just three people sit in the audience listening to a presentation that is at most mediocre. Only three, because the topic is extremely special and because many presentations recite a bunch of numbers, data and facts.
As students, we can learn a lot of undoubtedly interesting stuff – otherwise we would not have decided to study a particular subject. But most professors do not give much thought to how this material is taught. No wonder with the continuous pressure of publications, project proposals and the day-to-day administrative stuff. The unloved teaching is only the odd one out. But without preparation and training only natural talents may succeed with both instructive and exciting lectures. Unfortunately, this happens far too rarely.
Imagine it is science and everyone will come
As a freshman student, I was lucky in experiencing one of the most exciting lectures: “The Geography of the Tropics and Subtropics”. An interesting topic and a sympathetic, charismatic professor came together here. So our lecture hall was regularly full. What distinguished Prof. Ulrich Scholz in addition to his winning personality? He, too, taught us many a theory with numbers, data and facts in his lectures. But what he did differently – and better – than any other professional: he packed his knowledge into exciting personal stories!
Prof. Scholz was able to combine scientific content with personal experiences. There were no text-heavy slides. He brought his personal experiences from his time in Indonesia with him to the lecture hall. Because he was able to quickly combine technical basics and his practical experience, the knowledge transfer was part of the process.
His specialty was the parallel use of two slide projectors: he often showed two photos in parallel and linked them to his personal history. Or on the first slide he visualized a model from theory, on the second a photo to demonstrate the practical use of the model. That was entertaining for us students, always exciting and at the same time educating. His lecture was so extremely good that one year later some students voluntarily sat down again in the lecture hall and listened!
And then there were those professors who covered similarly interesting topics. Their lectures were scientifically extremely precise. However, they carried out a lot of theory with endless columns of numbers and still incomprehensible technical terms. Snore! We students left faster than we could count to three. We preferred to learn the material at home and sometimes together.
In other words: Stories make science exciting again. Research and teaching can use stories very well. Using practical examples and personal stories, we understand background information, theories and, of course, scientific facts much faster. They stimulate our imagination and are more memorable for us if we can imagine pictures in the presentation: it is crucial to have a concrete idea.
Controversy: How exact must science be?
But isn’t it dangerous to mix science and story-telling?
So we quickly call on many critics who tell us: facts must remain verifiable, results must be presented precisely. And without terminology, our words become blurred – this is not acceptable! We will lose our credibility if we decorate scientific facts with feelings and emotions! We must please remain objective!
This is also controversially discussed on the online platform ResearchGate. Sven Schade raised the question of how important storytelling and visualization are for science. His statement was followed by dozens of mostly very detailed answers. Some of them are briefly presented here.
According to Werner Benger, stories are not enough to impart knowledge in order to learn new contents and concepts. Science must also distinguish itself from the entertainment industry. On the other hand, according to William C. Ray, scientific content can be communicated more comprehensibly. All that is needed is for a sufficient number of researchers to look beyond their own horizons. In addition, data alone is not meaningful. And according to Karen L. McKee, every scientist should consider how to explain content in an understandable and direct way. Storytelling is a suitable (but not the only) way to communicate with the audience.
The view outside
So the question is whether we as scientists want to get stuck in our ivory tower. I advocate to open ourselves to the outside world and to communicate in a way that we can be understood again. To do so, we must be prepared to break down our technical language into terms that are easy to understand in the outside world. We cannot avoid a certain blurring of the language. As long as the methods and analyses are carried out precisely, I have no objection to them.
We can gain a lot – especially in times of critical checks on legitimacy and credibility. Not least, science slams are particularly popular with young scientists: the content here is certainly less precise than in classical research and teaching. On the other hand, information is communicated in an extremely entertaining way and thus show the enormous potential of science to the public. Here the speakers no longer disappear behind tedious content. Quite the opposite: Open-minded speakers add a unique personal touch to the presentation. As a result, science is once again enjoyable – and not least inspires the audience.
This post is also available in: German