Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories

In the Cornelsen coursebook I’m writing, and in my classes, I warn my students against turning their presentations into straight pitches. Robert McKee, the Hollywood scriptwriter, has pointed out that the audience doesn’t really engage with and is not convinced by a presentation that tries to sell only strong points. People aren’t dumb. They’ll instinctively know that the presenter is giving them only half of the story. Instead, McGee says, presenters should use the typical shape of stories for their talks, and take their audience through all of the highs and lows.

According to McKee, all stories follow a basic pattern: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance.” But then an event occurs that introduces a complication. The plot thickens as the protagonist tries to restore balance, working with whatever means are available and taking action in the face of risks.

KVstoriesNow, that may be true for the basic pattern, but there are clearly variations. In this lecture, novelist Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr Rosewater) presents three such variations along a line from B for Beginning to E for… Electricity.

Also see below one of the last interviews with Vonnegut. It showcases his full life and his signature phrase: “And so it goes.”

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.

iCloud: iUnderstand

This is one of Steve Job’s last presentations, still explaining “his” products with inspired simplicity and clarity.

Focus with me for a moment on his metalanguage (often called signposting), that is the language he uses to take us from one point to the next. Metalanguage or signposting varies widely between presentation types, and is generally very different in product marketing, say, than in a presentation of technological developments to other specialists. Likewise metalanguage in academic science presentations that rely heavily on visuals will differ completely from those in economics, with their charts and empirical data, or from lectures in philosophy. At one level the difference is connected to the way each type of presentation communicates concepts. The more abstract and involved concepts get, the more difficult it will be for the audience to relate to and follow the speaker communicating them, and the more necessary it becomes to talk about what has already been said and to connect it to what is coming up next. In other words, there is no one formula for signposting, no instant phrases to learn by heart and simply apply to presentations. One size does not fit all. Every genre is different!

Just listen to the type of metalanguage Steve Jobs uses. It’s unbelievably simple:  Introducing a new product: “You like everything so far? (Audience: Yeah!) “Well, I’ll try not to blow it.” Moving from one feature to the next: “So that’s Contacts; here’s Calendars. Works much the same way.” Each statement backed by the trademark big, beautiful pictures. His authentic and communicative body language suggests that everyone is really getting the message. He doesn’t explain the technology in a way that goes over anyone’s head. And should anyone not get it completely, he draws them in, not through information, but through

  • Empathy: “Keeping those devices in sync is driving us crazy.” “You might ask, Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that, but we learned a lot.”
  • Emotion, quasi-religious feeling and humor: “Some people think the cloud just a hard disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that.” “The truth is on the cloud.”
  • Reassurance: “It just works.” “Pretty cool.” “It’s that simple.”

…and his audience laughs and believes it understands. A socially very powerful approach. Remember we are talking about an app that takes all of the information on your personal phone and removes it to an external something, somewhere, which should at least invite questions. But no, it’s all good.

It’s really an understatement to say that Steve Jobs’ iconic presentation style perfectly matched the Apple image. As a consequence of these presentations, Jobs was Apple. He’ll be a hard, no: an impossible act to follow. RIP.

10 things you didn’t know about…

Mary Roach takes the cake with her TED presentation on “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm”. Did you know that paraplegics can have orgasms by stimulating parts of their body not typically connected with sexuality, just above their sense-deprived bodyparts? That embryos masturbate? Or that there is a woman who can have an orgasm by brushing her teeth? A very entertaining topic and talk!

I like Mary Roach’s reduced presentation: ten slides, each with a short phrase, white on black (and a few rivetting photos and a film thrown in). It goes wonderfully with her lively and natural delivery. She’s a natural-born presenter, so why have competing slides? Less, as almost always, is more. Critical body language note to self and others: Don’t walk around too much in front of audience, stand still!

We’ll be watching this talk at Morphosys this week (a course with about 6 or 7 students, half of them scientists, half lab technicians) and I’ll ask each participant to create a short individual presentation using the model “Ten things you didn’t know about…” on a topic of their choice.

PS: Update after the class: Things went quite differently. We wound up talking about the Danish government plan for happy pork – and animal farming in general – and then about sex research and reproductive medicine – and then collected 10 things you didn’t know about biotech. Having people do actual presentations at the end of a long, hard day when it’s as dark outside as if it were winter is no-go.

The language of bacteria

Yesterday at Morphosys we had an interesting discussion based on the TEDTalk by Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks by recognizing “self” and “other”. I asked the course how she “hooks” her listeners, and they said one of her main hooks was turning bacteria into actors, humanizing them, giving them “a mind of their own”. One of the participants said this was dumbing down, and didn’t like this type of popularized talk. But it got us thinking: Do we think actively, or is our brain just producing a series of chemical processes? What is consciousness? How legitimate or important is it to make an essential distinction between various levels of complexity in living organisms? I went home and read up on the “philosophy of mind” and the “theory of mind“, and I’m going to take some discussion points related to what I’ve found out back to them the next time I see them.

I love TEDTalks precisely for the way the speakers manage to popularize their enormously complex research to reach an interested audience, a skill any scientist must learn in order to get out of his or her highly specialized daily work to speak to people from other related disciplines – and to people in business! Plus they are 18 minutes long, a length proven to be just about ideal to keep an audience’s attention (See John Medina: Brain Rules for public speaking). That makes them the best source for learning presentation skills currently available on the Internet. The questions we ask are: How is the talk structured? How does the speaker hook the audience to engage them and bridge the gap between generalists and specialists? What is the take-home message?

Mike Hogan posted an article on how teach with another TED presentation, this one by Richard St. John, on Ask Auntie Web.