Why Is Storytelling an Important Skill as a Grad Student Researcher and How Do You Do It?
Being able to communicate your scientific discoveries both inside and outside your academic field is arguably as important as making the discovery. However, it is not easy to convert your lengthy research into an interesting narrative and impactful pitch.
This is especially true for PhD students who spend over four years on research projects that can be quite intricate and detailed. Because we know so much about our own research, all the details seem important, and it gets difficult to decide which details we want to leave out. This is something I have struggled with, and my advisor would always ask me how I would explain it to my grandmother. The idea here is that it's great to know the technicalities of your research, but communicating it in a way that is easily understood by anyone without a background in your specific field is an important skill to hone.
In academia, you will find several opportunities to communicate your research through writing, but verbally communicating your research is usually not a high-stakes requirement. In these situations, it becomes difficult to tell a story and deliver a captivating elevator pitch. If you've already done the work and dedicated so much effort into your research, it can be disheartening to lose an audience because of an unpolished or drab pitch. Below, I highlight some strategies that can potentially help you tell an impactful story about your research.
Narrow down your strategy
Before you begin preparing your pitch, you would need to identify the purpose of your pitch: is it to inform others or to sell your research? Information-type pitches would need you to simplify complex theoretical and methodological components of your research. Selling your ideas or research would involve identifying and explaining an existing problem and communicating how your research would provide a solution and create a call for action.
Working on "the Hook"
Your opening sentence is the most important sentence. It's meant to hook the audience. Spend time coming up with a hook that captures your audience's attention (check other resources below).
Share a cohesive and focused narrative
This one is very hard to do given that your research has several different theoretical and methodological explanations. However, to make it a good story, you would need to provide a unidirectional, focused narrative. Here, you should focus less on explaining the problem and more on how your research will address the problem.
Design your story
It is difficult for an audience to spontaneously understand how your research would be applied in the real world. We often talk about how our research addresses an existing knowledge gap in the field and although this might be very interesting to people who have worked for several years in your field, a larger audience would find it hard to see its relevance. So instead, you should include examples of real-world impact such as its social and political impact.
Practice, Practice, Practice
To get the timing, tone, delivery, and words right you would need to practice your pitch several times. When you start, practice in front of the mirror or by recording yourself. But nothing can substitute storytelling or pitching your research to a live audience. Their expressions of awe, interest, curiosity, confusion, or disinterest can be excellent cues for you to understand which parts of your pitch are great and which need more work. Make revisions to your story immediately after, based on the feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) that you receive, and the closer you will be to perfecting your final delivery!
Find more science-writing and research resources in SPSP's Learning Online professional development sessions.