Presentations as Stories: Part 2

Story: an account of incidents or events (Merriam-Webster).

GL at U of Kyoto bMy previous post on stories for presentations generated the counter argument that any sort of narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end is a story. From this point of view, my suggestion that we rarely want to tell a story in a knowledge presentation is problematic.

Here I will argue that there is more to a story than a beginning, a middle and an end.

I am not concerned that most stories are fictional. Many are true to life and so that is not an issue.

Nor am I concerned with the four essential components of a story; crisis, struggle, discovery and transformation. Analogues of these can be used to good effect in a knowledge presentation.

So, what is my argument? I will illustrate my concern with a story.

A Story on Bicycle Safety

Door away Bike LaneBicycle safety is one of my areas of professional interest. I have changed certain details of this story to protect the privacy of those involved.

A man in his 20s, living in a large, modern city, cycled to work on all but the worst weather days. The city might be classified as marginally bicycle friendly. Other characters in this story are a young mother, also in her mid-20s, and an older man in his 60s, both of whom were driving automobiles on the day in question.

The young mother had parked on a busy street and had become distracted by her infant fussing in the back seat. Although the street had a marked bicycle lane, she failed to check for bicycles before she opened her door. The young man, cycling at high-speed, struck the open door and was thrown onto the road in the path of the automobile driven by the older man. He was exceeding the speed limit by a good margin and could not stop in time. The cyclist’s injuries were so severe that he died on the way to hospital.

Bicycle Lane SignWe need to resolve each of these three problems. Cyclists should not be travelling at break-neck speeds along busy streets. Furthermore, on busy streets like this one, we need to enforce automobile speed limits more rigorously. Finally, we need to do something about this driver-distraction problem.

Story Critique

Is it evident what I have done here?

We all have thoughts about one or more of speeding cyclists, speeding motorists, fussing babies, and distracted drivers. I have used a unique incident to make sweeping claims and, by offering something for everyone, I have drawn you into my argument. Additionally, I have implied three causal relationships; the mother opened the door in the pathway of the cyclist because she was distracted by her infant, the cyclist was thrown onto the roadway in front of traffic because he was travelling too fast, and the older man could not stop in time because he was exceeding the speed limit.

One incident does not, however, establish the generality of an observation. I have made three important claims, each of which is debatable. I support them with anecdote rather than evidence. If I do want to establish the validity of these claims, I have to do something other than analyze a single incident.

My causal inferences point to a different problem. Event sequences as I describe them here reveal association but do not establish causality.

I could, of course, start a presentation with this story if I then established my three claims and my causal inferences with adequate data. Story capsules can be useful, but in this post I challenge the claim that the presentation narrative from start to finish can be in the form of a story.

What is a Story?

Some of my disagreement with others may be related to our differing definitions of story. Merriam-Webster defines story as an account of incidents or events. In my earlier post on this topic, I referred to a YouTube presentation by Cialdini and Martin. Theirs is a presentation of the highest standard. They do not, however, work through a series of incidents or events. Rather, they work through a series of claims.  By the Merriam-Webster definition at least, a series of claims is not a story.

‘Once,’ said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, ‘I was a real Turtle.

‘Once,’ said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, ‘I was a real Turtle.

Additionally, beyond the Merriam-Webster definition, a story needs characters. My story on safety has three. If I were to develop a presentation on this theme but with the right sort of data, what might I have as characters? It would, I suggest, have to be an abstract concept, something like bicycle safety or road safety. There would have to be some sort of tension between my protagonist, bicycle safety, and some other sort of abstract concept, possibly driver distraction or excessive speed. While I can conceive of the possibility, I suggest that a scientifically credible story-line with abstract concepts as characters would be awkward.

Final Thought

With all of this in mind, I reiterate my earlier view; story is not an essential ingredient of a powerful knowledge presentation and further, an attempt to develop a knowledge presentation as a story will very often distort the message.

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