Boaz Vilozny wrote a blog post earlier this week about the use of narrative in research presentations, and why it’s time for academics to finally give up on the idea of using what he calls the “Murder Mystery” format. Vilozny (as he points out) is not the first person to make this argument, Jean-Luc Doumont has made the same argument in his lectures and books. I agree with them both that the way this form appears in most research presentations, where the researcher pores over reams and reams of data before finally presenting the final result with a great “ta-da”, almost never works. The audience is already bored and disinterested by the time that reveal occurs, and it never lands with the impact the presenter hopes for. Where I disagree is the reason why this form rarely works. The problem isn’t with the mystery, but with the murder.
As I discuss in Chapter Four of my book, all narratives share a common structure, in which someone wants something badly, and has trouble getting it. All that is required for a story to work is that the audience understand who the someone is, and what something they want, in the beginning of the story. Murder mysteries are no exception, and they follow the formula precisely. The someone is almost always the inspector (e.g. Holmes, Poirot, the Scooby-Doo Gang, etc.) and the something they want is to solve the murder. The bulk of the story is a telling of the trouble the inspector has achieving that goal, and the climax is the revelation of the identity of the murderer. Audiences enjoy these stories because they sympathize with the protagonist. It’s fun to imagine ourselves in the role of inspector, sifting through the clues, and it’s enjoyable to try and guess the killer before he or she is revealed. But the success of the structure hinges on the early establishment of that objective, which is why the murder mysteries always begin with a MURDER.
This is the narrative element that is missing from the “murder mystery” research presentation. Such presentations aren’t boring because they present a bunch of information. They’re boring because the audience has no reason to care about that information. One could (in theory) construct a “mystery” research presentation that did work as an effective narrative, but it would need to start with the scientific equivalent of finding a dead body at a dinner party. If the course of your normal research was suddenly and jarringly interrupted by an absolutely unexpected an inexplicable event, a murder mystery presentation might be the right way to tell that story. There are relatively few examples that I know of where this actually happens (off the top of my head, the discovery of pulsars comes to mind), but if it did, it would take the place of a “murder”, and you could tell the rest of the story as a mystery.
The reason so many research talks fail is because there is no jarring event. They aren’t even murder mysteries, they’re murder-less mysteries. As Volozny points out, it’s therefore usually better to simply construct a different kind of story, in which the research itself is one of the characters. (Based on his post, I would argue that his fluorescent polymers were the protagonist, and the detection of sugars is their objective; his goal as a storyteller would be to make it clear to the audience at the outset why they should care about detecting sugars.) The reason so many people seem to default to the mystery format is that they fear that revealing the ending will “spoil” it, that the audience will lose interest if they know the outcome. That’s just not so. I address this in the section of Chapter Four called “Victory is Irrelevant”:
“… [It is] perfectly acceptable at the outset to tell the audience how the story will end. This [may seem] counterintuitive, since we made clear that the purpose of the narrative proposition is to force the audience to invest emotionally in the outcome of the story, but the truth is that audiences are invested in the process of story, not in the story’s end product. We are less interested in if the hero gets the girl, or defeats the villain, or locates the treasure, than in how that hero goes about pursuing that goal…”
Research presentations, whether targeted at fellow researchers within a specific discipline, or addressed the most general public, must establish a goal, must make clear not what you did, but why you did it, at the very outset, because that establishes the framework upon which the remainder of the narrative depends.
Tim Miller is the author of Muse of Fire: Storytelling & The Art of Science Communication, an open textbook available at spokenscience.com/publications.