Storytelling for Engineers

http://www.flickr.com/photos/chezbunny/3227898787/This week, several of my lab mates are off to a large conference. In my field, conferences almost universally entail a talk of some sort, usually 10 or 15 minutes with Powerpoint slides. For most young presenters, this time limit is a huge challenge, because they are fixated on showing all of the details to validate their results. Their slides are busy, without too much information for anyone to parse in the 60 seconds they have that slide up. Consequently, they rush through a lot of material, leaving their audience unsure of what they just heard.

The advice I was given by my first research advisor was to tell a story, focus on what the moral of the story is, and only give the details needed to lead the audience where you want them to go. Some of the best presentations I’ve seen have slides with a single well-designed graph. The speaker stays focused on one thing at a time, before tying together the pieces. I’ve yet to master this skill, but I try and keep this mind when preparing my own presentations.

This advice doesn’t just apply to presentations, of course, but to any form of communication. For two equally valid theories, a good story will almost always win out. Thomas Young’s description of the theory of elasticity was based largely on ideas Euler had published 75 years earlier, but he told a more compelling story, so we call it Young’s modulus.

I’ve always been a proponent of the well-rounded engineer, and I’m generally in favor of the humanities requirements in most undergraduate programs. Why not study storytelling?

 

Image thanks to chezbunny.

6 responses to “Storytelling for Engineers”

  1. Donald Butler

    Hello my name is Donald Butler and I’m a junior that attends Lawrence North Highschool in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ve been really interested in engineering since about seventh grade and I would really like some feedback about how the jobs are and if they are good careers to have.
    I was initially interested in engineering because I love to create new things and I’ve always been fascinated by seeing new buildings being built and the “How?” factor of it all. My parents pressure me to look into the field more because they don’t think I know enough about the career yet. I get mail from many colleges about engineering and I read every last one of them. I really want to shadow someone in the engineering field but I have no clue where to even start when it comes to finding someone who would let me shadow themselves.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated or you can e-mail me at dnbutler30@live.com. Thank you.

    1. Ismail Hameduddin

      Donald: Engineers come in all shapes and sizes. They do all types of work. A good (I am putting emphasis on good) engineering education will teach you problem solving skills, not to be afraid of math and how to look down on everyone else!

      Going to school for engineering will not automatically make you an engineer. It’ll just give you some elemental skills and give you some nifty tools to use – if you already know where you’re going to use them for. See if you love building stuff and are wondering how the stresses on a beam are determined so structures don’t fail, how the pressure in a pipe is calculated so that the right size pipes are used, how your cars cruise control determines how much gas to give, etc. These are the things engineering school will teach you. It will also, through projects and homeworks, teach you the basics of problem solving and engineering “attitudes” (like dealing with safety, etc.).

      But an engineer, you have to become on your own…

  2. GEARS

    Miss MSE,
    I’m going to agree and disagree with you. I do think the composition and flow of the “story” is vastly critical in scientific communication. We all have sat through the presentation that was sooo terrible and incoherent that you couldn’t tell if it was garbage or Nobel Prize worthy. In most cases, we default to the former (which says something about our own ignorance/prejudice) but if you can’t communicate, it’s going to be difficult for you to succeed.

    With that said, I’m not a big fan of the humanities requirements for engineers because humanities students don’t have to take basic engineering courses. I believe it should be a two way street. And you’ve given me a good idea for a post today…

  3. Require Humanities Students to Take Core STEM Classes | Engineer Blogs

    […] week, Miss MSE discussed how engineers must be capable of telling a good story in order to effectively communicate scientific information. At the end of her post, Miss MSE […]

  4. Useful Things I Have Learned That Engineering School Never Taught Me | Engineer Blogs

    […] written already, but think it’s an appropriate response to recent articles from GEARS and from Miss MSE about which humanities classes I thought should have been part of my […]

  5. Taylor Michaels

    I used to work for a company which had a 5/5/5 rule. More of a guideline though.

    Five slides
    Five lines per slide
    Five words per line

    Within that requirement there is plenty of space for backup slides. If anyone has a question, bring up the appropriate backup. With PowerPoint, you can make the backups nearly invisible on the screen.