In this episode I talk to Dr. Caitlin Kight, Senior Academic Developer and SciComm expert, about storytelling in research communication. We specifically discussion the chapter ‘Explanation’ in the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, which introduces a range of rhetorical devices to engage your audience and explain tough concepts. During the podcast we discuss:

You can find Caitlin on twitter @specialagentCK, and on YouTube for lots of online learning contact about research communication.

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to R, D and the In betweens

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hi, everyone, and welcome to this week's episode. It's Kelly here.

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And I'm delighted today to be joined by my colleague, Dr. Caitlin Kight, who is an academic, developer and science communication expert.

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And today we're going to talk about research, communication and storytelling, but specifically a chapter from the book.

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Ted Talks by Chris Anderson, which is all about explaining tough concepts.

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So, Caitlin, you happy to introduce yourself? I am Dr. Caitlin Kight from the academic development team.

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And I am someone who has been involved with communication and education for pretty much my whole life.

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So I have been in the area of science communication.

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Perhaps most recently I've written books and magazine articles and done public speaking.

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So I have a general interest in communicating to non academic audiences.

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So to start off with, Caitlin and I are going to give our key takeaways or key summaries of the extract,

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which was the chapter on explanation and what we think are the really important things to take forward as a researcher.

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So I'll give I'll start us off. So for me, even though the chapter is good,

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explanation is really about storytelling and storytelling is one of those things that I talk about all the time in relation to every form of research,

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communication, whether it's tweeting about your research or blogging or podcasting or writing up a thesis chapter or giving a conference presentation.

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It's all about storytelling, because when we're communicating our research, we are constructing it for an audience in some shape or form.

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For me, one of the things that I was thinking about was having a bit of a flashback where there's quite a lot of discussion about the very clever

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techniques that people employed and how they had done something in order to leave the audience thinking a thing or wondering a thing,

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and then how that was brought to a close or built upon.

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And I was thinking about how when I studied English quite extensively.

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So my mom was an English teacher and for a long time I thought I was going to also go into literature.

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So I did a lot of English study. And when you're doing literary analysis and interpretation, I think you become convinced that what you are seeing,

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the patterns that you're finding are things that the author deliberately put in place.

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There's some really deep meaning and some metaphor in it all. Isn't that clever?

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And then actually, you find out later on that the person never intended that.

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And we do, in fact, have authors that are still living who said, nope, that is not what I meant in that place.

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And I think that we do that with a lot of stuff.

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We find our own meanings and lots of things.

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And so when I was listening to all the descriptions of the very clever stuff that these speakers were doing,

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I thought, how much of that is really intentional? How deliberate are all of these decisions?

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And I do think that often when you are preparing communication, that there are some deliberate choices and there always should be deliberate choices.

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But I also think that a lot of people have a sort of an intuition.

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And I have a friend who works in the press and public relations,

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and he often talks about how everyone is good at storytelling because we do it when

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we're kids grow up telling stories and we often stop doing it as we get older.

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But actually, we do all have this kind of latent untapped potential, even if we aren't using it.

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And so perhaps some of the time we get in our own way and actually we just need to kind of let go and let those creative juices flow.

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And I certainly find that I do this when I'm writing. Often I think I'm going to start off with a certain goal.

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Here's my certain structure and then something else entirely comes out. And I actually really like that.

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And so all of this is to say that I think. All of what you said about the structure is really important in those techniques.

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It's really important to be aware of those possibilities,

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but also to kind of set certain expectations aside when you approach your own communication and just.

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Go with the flow and see what comes out.

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And then your mind will pull the right ones out to the right techniques, the right methods when you need them,

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and something new and different might emerge and you just never know when you start.

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I think that's really important. And like you say, it's not about kind of it's not a tick list of if you've got a metaphore and you've got an example

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and you've got this you've got a great you've got a great explanation or great form communication.

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And it's about figuring out what works for a particular topic.

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And particularly, you know, the thing that I liked about this chapter, even though,

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you know, it's for TED talks, which aren't always research based talk. It's talking about kind of explaining difficult concepts,

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which I know when we talk about research communication and we talk about some of these things about storytelling,

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people who say to me, oh, yeah, but, you know, I can't oversimplify it.

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And it it's not about oversimplification. It's about actually that fundamental thing, which is in the chapter.

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And I've been listening as an audio book, too, will storr's the science of storytelling.

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And it really emphasises what you're saying,

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that actually storytelling is such a fundamental part of the way we've developed and evolved as human beings.

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You know, it's a very particular part or capability of our brains.

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And we do it in all aspects of our life, but we don't necessarily think that that's what we're doing.

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Well, I think that that that links to another element that really stood out for me.

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And I forget exactly how it was phrased in the passage that you read, but it reminded me of a similar sentiment that I saw at some point online.

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It's one of those things where you come across it on Twitter or something and you save it because you think all that's a really good point.

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And this person was basically saying that the whole point of going out and and giving a public lecture,

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let's say a lot of a lot of people who do that,

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there is a bit of an ego trip involved and they want to make sure that when they're standing up there in front of everyone,

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that they sound smart and that they look smart and that they do a good job so they can walk away feeling like everyone admires me now.

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And actually, what's what's more important and I think teachers do this as well,

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like it's inevitable that you do kind of it's hard to shut out your ego if for no other reason.

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They just don't want to make a fool of yourself.

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But what you really want to be up there doing is completely not thinking about yourself and in fact, thinking and the opposite,

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thinking of the audience and trying to get the audience to walk away, thinking, man, I am brilliant.

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And and the whole thing is that you can stand up there and say super fancy words that nobody

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gets or you can find a really clever way of saying something that everyone understands.

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But that understanding is something that like opens up the universe to people and suddenly they

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see all these connections and it changes the way they perceive life and they feel amazing.

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And I think that when you walk out of there feeling amazing because you've had a mental connection,

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you are at the same time feeling extremely grateful to the person that helped you get that.

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And so I think that inevitably the one will kind of allow the other to follow.

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But it really is about helping other people to make those connections rather than trying to elevate yourself in some fashion.

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Yeah, I agree. And I think when I talk about academic writing and, you know,

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when I teach about literature reviews or reading and we have these kind of very honest conversations of actually reading,

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academic work can be really tough sometimes because there was certainly this historical

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tradition where we articulate ourselves in the most complicated way possible,

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using as much jargon as possible to look as clever as possible.

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And thankfully, we are sort of slowly shifting away from that and writing in a way that's more accessible to everybody, because the reality is.

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Actually, even if we are schooled in that discipline,

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we can read journal articles in it and still not understand or have to read a paragraph several times to really understand what it means.

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And it's just not good communication. It's not like you say that's about our ego and about making ourselves sound clever rather than.

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Actually communicating and actually promoting understanding in others.

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And you're not going to have any impact with your research. Unless you're doing that.

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Absolutely. And I think that I think that some of that ties in with the broad category of rhetorical techniques.

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So these things that you mentioned already, for example, the use of metaphors,

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I think some people think that, you know, they're going to cheapen something.

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If if they do have to liken A to B rather than talking about A directly.

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And it's that kind of dumbing down that you mentioned earlier.

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But actually, I think that there's something really satisfying in learning a variety of rhetorical techniques

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and having that little bank of things in your brain and then figuring out just the right one.

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You know, is it that I'm going to start off this talk by asking a question?

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Is it that I'm going to start off by telling people that they don't know anything and I'm going to tell them everything now and like, you know,

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up in their expectations and all those things that you mentioned in the passage where it was about kind of leaving people in a cliff-hanger.

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Confusing them deliberately so that you get everything back up, so it's all those things.

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I don't think we're really taught that so much in school anymore. And, you know, we used to be taught rhetoric in the classroom.

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And that doesn't really happen. And so those were things where you do have to undertake that kind of literary analysis that I mentioned earlier.

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You do have to deliberately look for those things and find them. And then you have to think, when are these going to be actually applicable?

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When are they going to help?

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And then you have to not be afraid of using them, because then it's in a sense, I think some people think, well, that's a bit manipulative.

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It's like showmanship. It's not really genuine. It's not really, you know, researched.

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It's not really teaching. I'm getting up there and I'm kind of performing a little bit. But actually, that's that is a part of communicating.

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That's often a part of storytelling as well. It's setting the stage.

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There is a bit of theatricality and I don't see anything wrong with that.

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It doesn't cheapen anything. And at the end of the day, if people are therefore understanding.

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Well, I was just going to say that I think when we talk about stories, often people feel uncomfortable with the word story.

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Right. It sounds like fiction. It sounds like it's not the truth. But really, when we're talking about stories, we're talking about narratives.

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And the word narrative just indicates this is there's a temporal progression here.

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You know, there are things that are happening in a certain order.

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And really, if there are all sorts of things that we've been doing with narrative over time,

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you mentioned will storr's book the science of storytelling?

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And there's another one that I'd recommend called the Storytelling Animal, which which is by Jonathan Gottschall.

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And books like that talk a lot about how our brains perceive and store information in narrative form for obvious evolutionary reasons.

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We need to we need to know what prompted the lion to jump out of the bush at us so that we cannot do that again or whatever the situation was.

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So this these are things we pay attention to. We remember them really well. And so for thousands of years, that's how we learnt.

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We told stories. And if you think about things like fables and myths, you know, we had these stories that were specifically designed to.

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Add a whole lot of information together and tie it up in little packets so that we could keep all of our human knowledge.

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The sum total of everything we knew as a culture in our brains.

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And that is a really important thing to do.

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And obviously you need to pass that information on.

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And really, these are these fables and myths and these memorable stories.

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These are things that are fundamentally really important in an all of the tasks that we do.

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And I think it's all about. Relating various lessons to our own lives and who we are as people to what we want to achieve, to how we can do that.

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Either working alone or as a community.

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And so something suddenly that starts off sounding like entertainment becomes kind of essentially basic and a baseline,

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really foundational part of just being a person and being alive in society.

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And I think that that's part of the thing that does help connect all of our research to our

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everyday lives is that actually there are lessons to be drawn out of every single thing.

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And we can use those lessons in unexpected ways.

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And we've been doing that for thousands of years. To me, that feels really exciting, like you're actually a part of the kind of human continuum.

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If you engage in this exchange of knowledge in this way. Exactly.

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And I mean, things like you say about, you know, there's almost a sort of looking down on a sense of performativity and showmanship in it.

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And this notion of entertainment. But actually, you know, let's look at our modern world and let's look at how we learn.

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We learn through entertainment. I mean, how many people watch Blue Planet?

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How many people have changed their habits and the amount of plastic they use as a result of Blue Planet,

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which some of our researchers at Exeter were involved in? I remember seeing a really interesting article once about the Sunday night drama,

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Call the Midwife, where they had an episode about female genital mutilation.

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And it actually showed that there were more Google searches and people finding out more information about FGM as a result

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of it being featured on an episode of call The Midwife than when the BBC ran a documentary specifically about it.

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And it was a really interesting thing that said, actually,

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it's the important thing here was the medium through which the message got through and the medium was,

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you know, Sunday night entertainment essentially. But all of our entertainment is embedded with those kind of.

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Messages, whether they're about history, whether about morality.

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I mean, that's how you know, how we're taught the difference between good and bad as the kids.

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those fairy tales and those myths and fables, you know, you go all the way back to Aesop's Fables.

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And all of the messages about the ways in which we act in the world that are embedded.

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Within those simple, really simple stories. And so I think, yeah, I agree, it's sometimes we.

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We look down on the notion of performing and the notion of entertainment,

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whereas actually we forget how much we learn through that medium and we're socially conditioned for that aren't we.

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I want to come back to this idea of the curse of knowledge because. It's that I think this is where the real challenge lies is.

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OK. We've got all of these tools that we can use to promote understanding. But we are left with knowledge.

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And how do how do we take that step back?

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How do we begin thinking from our audiences perspective rather than ours, to kind of break down what we're trying to say?

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The different concepts we're articulating and creating those. What Chris Anderson calls in the TED talks, book the building blocks.

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That get people to a central idea. And for me, in my own experience.

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But that really is where the challenge lies, because once I once I can take a step back from that and I know what I need to say.

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We have these range of tools. That can be adopted to say it, but how how do you get past that kind of knowledge?

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Whenever you got to that point in the passage? My immediate reaction was, oh, well, I don't have this problem.

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I'm actually really good at this. And as soon as I had that thought, I thought, wow, what am I just you know, I've just convinced myself.

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And that's exactly what everyone does, right? They convince themselves that, you know what they're doing.

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But what it made me think of was an element that I recently added to a communications workshop that I run where I was trying to get people to think

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about the different sorts of audiences that they talked to and how just kind of intuitively they often I think most people do to some extent,

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they will often start adapting how they're describing their resources that are talking to these different audiences.

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So my research was as a scientist, which is what I used for my example in the workshop, it was really interdisciplinary.

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And so I would often find myself talking to different researchers from different disciplines as I was asking about different subjects.

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And for each of those researchers, I had to describe my work in a completely different way so that I could extract the knowledge that I needed

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from them while not confusing them with all the extra stuff that had nothing to do with their field.

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And then at some point, I kind of noticed that I was doing that. And then I realised that it was the same sort of thing I was doing when I would

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talk to peers in my programme who weren't necessarily doing my research.

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But, you know, they're kind of generally in the same field.

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And it was the same thing I was doing when I would talk to my parents or to people I might meet at a conference and so on.

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And once I became aware of the different choices that I was making,

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it suddenly became actually much easier to know how to actively make those choices on purpose in the future.

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So there were certain phrases that I might use or not use, or if I use them, I would immediately define them.

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There were certain elements that I just wouldn't even talk about or others that I would emphasise much more.

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So it's really, you know, what's there, what's not there. How are you describing it?

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How are you balancing out? What what is it exactly that story that you're telling?

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And I think it's really all about just not necessarily being empathetic,

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but just being really mindful of what it is that people are getting confused about what it is they're asking you to clarify.

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When are they squinting and throwing their brow? And, you know, we probably won't get it right the first time, but we do this lots of times.

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And so it's really paying attention over all of those different iterations and collecting

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all those little techniques so that you can use them on purpose next time around.

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It it it's kind of responding to the fact that that's not really working for that person,

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obviously that's a very clear dialogue, but it's what we do in a teaching room.

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You know, it's what makes people good teachers is you're observing your.

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Audience or your classroom, and you you can tell from those furrowed brow.

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But from body language and from, you know, more ephemeral things like kind of energy and atmosphere,

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how things are going down and whether or not you're bringing in bringing the class with you, holding their hand or whether you've let them go.

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And you do change that and switch that up in the moment and find different ways to articulate things in different ways to explain things.

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Yeah. I agree, and I think that's actually one of the things I was considering as you were reading that passage was

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how important it is where we can to actively get a bit of information about our audience in advance.

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And this is not always possible. Absolutely.

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If you're doing a public event and it's just, you know, whoever is walking by is going to come over and listen.

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You don't know what they already know. You have to take a stab in the dark or kind of go for a lowest common denominator or whatever the cases.

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But there are often times where we do have the ability to send out a little survey or

00:20:54,000 --> 00:20:58,000
at the very beginning of a talk to ask for a show of hands or something like that.

00:20:58,000 --> 00:21:06,000
And even just a couple of those little opportunities can make a huge difference because suddenly, you know, there are a set example in the bit.

00:21:06,000 --> 00:21:11,000
You read about the the writer who didn't know what natural selection was.

00:21:11,000 --> 00:21:15,000
So you can really easily you can say show of hands.

00:21:15,000 --> 00:21:23,000
Who has heard of this or does everyone feel that they can, you know, apply that knowledge or define it for me?

00:21:23,000 --> 00:21:26,000
And just knowing that little bit would make a huge difference,

00:21:26,000 --> 00:21:33,000
because you could either assume some understanding of evolution or you would take a step back and and go through the description of it.

00:21:33,000 --> 00:21:39,000
And having that to orient you at the very beginning can be really helpful.

00:21:39,000 --> 00:21:45,000
And this is why when I'm giving talks where possible and again, if you're doing a TED style thing, this might not work.

00:21:45,000 --> 00:21:52,000
But I like to have hidden slides, whether that's kind of as I go or at the very end that I can pull up if I need to.

00:21:52,000 --> 00:22:01,000
So that if there is a particular concept that's a stumbling block either in the middle of things or after when I'm being when I'm answering questions,

00:22:01,000 --> 00:22:05,000
I can pull that up and say, oh, I'm sorry, I didn't cover it before, but here it is now.

00:22:05,000 --> 00:22:11,000
I think that's really important. And that really brings us back to that notion of what the building blocks are.

00:22:11,000 --> 00:22:18,000
Yes. And I think we can we can use our own experience with as well as a source of inspiration.

00:22:18,000 --> 00:22:24,000
And this perhaps kind of relates to the the other theme of the chapter, which was thinking about simplification.

00:22:24,000 --> 00:22:32,000
But I was thinking about how if if you can be empathetic to your audience and place yourself in their shoes and think,

00:22:32,000 --> 00:22:35,000
what was it like when I first started learning this thing, you know, what?

00:22:35,000 --> 00:22:39,000
What were my stumbling blocks? What were the terms? I didn't understand.

00:22:39,000 --> 00:22:42,000
What was the threshold concept, if you like?

00:22:42,000 --> 00:22:49,000
What was the thing that I learnt that suddenly opened my eyes and allowed me to access everything else that linchpin.

00:22:49,000 --> 00:22:58,000
So I think that when you can try to. Just reverse the clock a little bit and see through early your eyes.

00:22:58,000 --> 00:23:02,000
Then that can help you to then think about how to pitch it for your audience.

00:23:02,000 --> 00:23:06,000
And I think that one of the things that's really interesting about that, well,

00:23:06,000 --> 00:23:10,000
especially in science, I'm not sure the extent to which this happens in other disciplines.

00:23:10,000 --> 00:23:19,000
But when we're taught about things in science, often we get something that's incredibly watered down because the truth is insanely complex.

00:23:19,000 --> 00:23:23,000
And so when we learn about replication, for example, you know,

00:23:23,000 --> 00:23:29,000
with this this really simple concept of, oh, yes, the cell is one cell and then it becomes two cells.

00:23:29,000 --> 00:23:34,000
And that keeps going until you have a whole human body and that, you know, that's it.

00:23:34,000 --> 00:23:42,000
And then suddenly you start finding out about mitosis versus meiosis and then you find out about t RNA and MRSA.

00:23:42,000 --> 00:23:47,000
Your mind is blown and you think, well, why wasn't I told all of these things before?

00:23:47,000 --> 00:23:55,000
Because each time I'm having to completely break apart my knowledge and reassemble it, it's very confusing.

00:23:55,000 --> 00:23:58,000
Like, why didn't you just dive straight into that really complex thing,

00:23:58,000 --> 00:24:05,000
but you can't dive straight into that complex thing because it's too many parts and it will overwhelm people.

00:24:05,000 --> 00:24:10,000
So it is really important to think about how do people learn,

00:24:10,000 --> 00:24:15,000
what are the bits that they need at certain times and then just to focus on those things.

00:24:15,000 --> 00:24:19,000
And if they want more, they can go find more or they can talk to you later.

00:24:19,000 --> 00:24:25,000
But no one is going to take all of that in. They might hear it, but they're not going to learn it.

00:24:25,000 --> 00:24:32,000
Yeah, and I think that that's one of the really important things about thinking about the difference between a presentation and,

00:24:32,000 --> 00:24:39,000
you know, a journal article or something we communicate in writing is the level of detail and complexity that we can represent.

00:24:39,000 --> 00:24:44,000
It's very different because people are taking them in completely differently.

00:24:44,000 --> 00:24:53,000
You know, you can read something and you can pause and you can, you know, look a word up or look a term up or a theory or you can take it,

00:24:53,000 --> 00:24:58,000
you know, take a break and let a mull over an idea whereas in a presentation.

00:24:58,000 --> 00:25:05,000
It's all got to come right now. It's now or never.

00:25:05,000 --> 00:25:16,000
Thank you so much, Caitlin, for a fascinating and illuminating conversation, all about storytelling and explaining tough concepts.

00:25:16,000 --> 00:25:24,000
I'm going to put links in the show, notes to all the resources Caitlin and I shared in this episode, as well as where you can find Caitlin online.

00:25:24,000 --> 00:25:56,042
And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to, like, rate and subscribe and join me next where I'll be talking to someone else about researchers, development, and everything in between


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