Scientific and technical presentations: Wise Whys

My aunt and uncle just moved into a retirement community in New Hampshire. Going through their books, they found one my grandfather had given to my mother.

The book is Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling.  “To Nancy, from Daddy, with love & Merry Christmas.  1934,” is inscribed on the inside cover.  My mother was eight years old.

On page 83 of my edition is an untitled poem that goes like this:

I keep six honest serving-men:

(They taught me all I knew).

Their names are What and Where and When

And How and Where and Who.

(skipping a few lines.  This is a 21st Century blog post.)

But different folk have different views:

I know a person small—

She keeps ten million serving –men,

who get no rest at all!

She sends ‘em abroad on her own affairs,

From the second she opens her eyes—

One million Hows, two million Wheres,

And seven million Whys!

I trust you’ve had the experience of a small girl asking you a long series of “Why” questions that lead you down a rabbit hole of improvised answers.

You end up realizing you don’t’ really know why—

The sky is blue

Trees have bark

Dogs bark

And water is wet

If you’re like me, as you got older, your curiosity focused on practical things, whereas the curiosity of a child can be scatter-shot and omnivorous.

Since we are adults, and adults also benefit from knowing why they are doing something, let’s proceed.

For adults, knowing why they are doing something begets a sense of purpose, and a sense of purpose usually means that we’re reaching for something important—something that is meaningful, significant, and potentially a source of deep human feeling.

I am suggesting that, when we are presenting data, instead of jumping into the what, where, how and when of a trial, protocol, survey, or experiment—I am suggesting that we take the time to remind the audience why we are presenting our data.

What is at stake?  What is the unmet need?  What is the problem we are trying to solve?  What could happen if we don’t solve the problem?  What could happen if we do?

It is my experience that my scientific and technical clients often leave this out.  They think it’s obvious, that it does not bear repeating.

For instance, oncologists do not want to remind other oncologists of the mortality rate in their therapeutic area.  They don’t want to speak of the low quality of life endured by patients on current therapies.  They don’t want to build a case for the importance of their research.

But it serves to get everyone on the same page, to recall the original intent of a project, and to remind the audience that the data could very well be a stepping stone to something bigger than ourselves.

Here’s what I think.  I think some scientific speakers don’t want to touch on the emotional.  They want to remain dispassionate searchers for the truth.  They want to stick to their knitting.  It’s part of the culture of science.

But to create a sense of the importance of the project, and to give scientific and technical presentations a dramatic punch, speakers should take the time to inscribe on the minds of their listeners the problem being addressed, the cost of leaving it unsolved, and the possible rewards should a solution become available.

Framing a scientific talk around a human problem engages the emotional energies of the mind, which in turn generates concentration and a sense of purpose.  It dignifies the work, and energizes all involved.

Tell them why you are telling them about your data, before you actually get into the data.

It’s wise to give them the whys up front.

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