Storytelling and Science: What's ABT got to do with it?Rebecca Wenker ·
If you had to group Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, and the writers of South Park together based on a single characteristic, would you be able to do it? True, they are all men and were able to achieve great success in their respective fields, but that's not the answer I'm looking for. Therefore, I'm going to ask that you try again. The correct answer, which I not-so- subtly hinted at in bold, is that they all know the power of the ABT narrative structure.
The ABT, or 'and, but, therefore,' template is the key behind every good story. Introduced by Randy Olsen in his book and TEDMED talk, the ABT format provides context, creates conflict, and offers resolution in your narrative. The framework also extends beyond literal storytelling - anyone trying to communicate their ideas effectively to a wider audience can benefit from it! Whether you're Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address to the American people, Charles Darwin publishing his breakthrough article on natural selection to skeptical scientists, or the writers of South Park creating engaging and funny storylines to entertain their viewers, the ABT structure can be utilized for communication.
Writing advice from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and writers of South Park. Posted by Fabian Valdez, License: Standard Youtube License
For those of us in the world of science, applying the concept of story-telling to the presentation of our various studies may not come naturally. We can often see this in tedious articles published in journals, or speakers at conferences who pile information on their audience without an explicit point. In an attempt to diverge from this tendency, our Science Visualization class applied the ABT structure to our own scientific work. For most of us, that meant transforming a thesis idea into an ABT elevator pitch. It sounds simple enough, but we soon learned it was trickier than we anticipated.
When creating an ABT statement, an important goal is to make it concise and compelling. However, many struggled with the dynamic between providing too much versus too little information. Others realized that word choice is also critical, as it shapes what your audience takes away from your statement and how they interpret what you are doing. For example, the phrase "healthy wetland" in one student's statement was deemed ambiguous in meaning and contentious by multiple classmates, while the use of acronyms was greatly disliked by our professor Dr. Bill Dennison as he believes they immediately narrow your potential audience. Our struggles highlighted the fact that an ABT statement is something you revise continuously, and sometimes it takes someone else's view to perfect it.
Looking at my own ABT statement below, I fell into the traps of:
- Too many 'ands'
- Using local language that may not be understood by a wider audience
- Replacing 'but' with 'however'
After critique from my peers, I was able to edit it so that there was concise information, language understood by a wide range of audiences, and a clear conflict statement. Hopefully it looks better to you too! If not, that's what continued peer review is for.
Another tool we used to help improve our communication efforts was the Message Box Workbook from Compass. This expanded upon the ABT statement by adding the elements of 'Benefits' and 'So What?' to our framework. These components make you think of what type of audience you are communicating with, and how to distill your message to coordinate with what they value and understand. We were presenting to a general scientific audience, or non-specialists in our field, for this exercise. Most of us were able to comfortably fill in the 'Issue,' 'Problems,' and 'Solutions' sections as they linked easily to our ABT statements, but the 'Benefits' and 'So What?' categories were harder. A big take away was to make sure your 'So What?' category isn't too generic, and to relate it specifically to the message you are trying to get across.
It all comes back to your audience! Who are they, what is their background, and why should they care about your work?
Overall, this exercise is useful for people all over the idea development spectrum. For those at the beginning of their research, the ABT framework helped them hone in on what they really want to ask and accomplish with their study. Those further along in their research learned how to pose a question in a way that is compelling to a wide range of audiences. Most importantly, both groups learned that you should always start a presentation with 'Why.' Why are you doing this, why should the audience care, and why is this important?
So, the next time you are preparing for a presentation (of any form), make sure to replace those 'ands' with 'buts,' embrace your inner social butterfly and ask peers for critique, and ask yourself: Who am I telling this story to, and why?