So, what's the story?

Back in Japan, I used to assist in Technical Presentation and Technical Writing courses. Students were taught how to make their presentations/papers better. Topics covered range from grammar to powerpoints to proper pronunciation; they learned details of how to produce good materials. At the end of the semester though, most of them still delivered mind-numbing presentations and undecipherable papers. I thought the students were struggling with the language as they were mostly Japanese, but then when I moved to Singapore, where the medium of instruction is English, I still encountered the same drudging presentations and papers. It's not the language and it's not the technique. It's even simpler than that. In most of those materials, there is no story.

I've sat through a couple of presentations this week and reviewed two papers for an international conference. In all instances, I was bored to death. I almost fell asleep at one of the presentations and it took me two days to get through a 6-page paper as I couldn't get past the first two incomprehensible pages. While listening/reading, I kept asking myself, what's the story? Tell me a story instead of giving a bunch of technical mambo-jumbos.

Why is it too difficult to make a presentation that presents a technical topic in a story format? I realized presentations and papers can even follow the fairy-tale format, something that even young kids will understand. Consider these parallels between a fairy-tale and a technical presentation as a complete story arc:
  • In a land far far away... >> Current situational context (social, technical, etc)
  • Then an evil witch suddenly appears... >> The problem to be solved (technical, social)
  • But there's a reluctant hero who can save the land... >> State of the art but with gaps
  • The reluctant hero needs to get a magic sword... >> The proposed method that can improve state-of-the-art and solve the problem
  • The reluctant hero battles the witch... >> Experimental or simulation details/results
  • The hero prevails and the witch is vanquished... >> Discussion
  • And they live happily ever after... >> Conclusion
If that seems too many to follow, consider these:
  • What's the current situation and what seems to be the problem?
  • Why do you want to solve it and what's your solution?
  • Convince me with your result.
Dear students, please heed this advice. The next time you write a paper or prepare a presentation, ask yourself, what's the story that you want to share? And then write/tell it like a fairy tale.

As I strongly believe, proper story-telling is fundamental to sharing, discussing, and discovering ideas, which is what research is all about.