Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Turning Scientific Presentations into Stories

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Turning Scientific Presentations into Stories

Article excerpt

On a top-ten list of our most common fears, death does not make number one (Dwyer & Davidson, 2012). Our most widespread fear is public speaking. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, at a funeral you'd be "better off in the casket than giving the eulogy." But we aren't afraid of talking to other people--we are afraid of their negative judgments. In private conversations, we expect to be understood; but in public presentation, we become fearful because we expect to be judged (Horvath, Moss, Xie, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2004; for a review, see Bodie, 2010). Anxious students, when giving a public talk, can therefore be helped by being encouraged to speak conversationally (Motley & Molloy, 1994), and this reorientation toward being understood, rather than performing well, can reduce anxiety (Ayers, Hopf, & Peterson, 2000). However, a focus on being understood does not help when students do not feel confident that they will be understood (Booth-Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield, 1993). Furthermore, when a student believes his or her talk's content will be judged negatively, being understood is a greater source of anxiety than performing well (MacIntyre, Thivierge, & MacDonald, 1997). To increase students' confidence in being understood, and to reduce their anxiety, the content of their talks can be reoriented away from an information model and toward a conversation model.

The present study describes a 2-hour workshop for science students that encouraged participants to experience similarities between private conversation and public speaking. Each workshop participant was preparing a public presentation to report scientific findings and had voluntarily chosen to seek further instruction by attending this workshop as an extension of class activity. Participants were free to withdraw from the workshop at any time, although none chose to do so. The purpose of the workshop was to increase participants' confidence in public speaking by guiding them to express their content as telling a narrative story rather than transmitting a set of information.


The workshop began by illustrating story structure. Each participant was placed in a group of four people, and one participant in each group told a personal story. Specifically, each group member received one of four different written instructions:

1. Tell a story about something that happened to you once.

2. #1 is going to tell you a story. Write down its first sentence, verbatim.

3. #1 is going to tell you a story. Summarize it in exactly three sentences.

4. #1 is going to tell you a story. Write down its last sentence, verbatim.

Listeners (those who received instructions #2-4) were told to keep their instructions secret. Talkers (those who received instruction #1) took time to decide what to talk about, but after reaching a decision, they proceeded without difficulty. When the story was told and all listeners had finished writing, talkers were asked whether they felt afraid or had lost track of their story. All talkers replied no to both questions. Listeners were asked if they found the story difficult to follow, and all reported no. Participants were then informed that a well-structured narrative coheres around a main idea, or thesis--and that talkers already knew this because they had each begun their story by saying its thesis. The #2 listeners, who had written down the first sentence, now read their sentence out loud and confirmed it was the main idea of the story. Participants were further informed that every story has a recognizable beginning, middle, and end; #3 listeners, who had summarized the story in three sentences, now read their writing out loud, and these were recognized to be the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Third, participants were told that a conclusion is a logical revisitation of the main idea, given the story's events; #4 listeners, who had written down the final sentence, read the sentence out loud and confirmed it was a conclusion. …

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