A grad student recently posted this question on Reddit: “Any tips on structuring/presenting talks on your research? I struggle to know where to start.” Fun fact: that’s the whole reason I came up with the Red Thread® in the first place. I hate staring at blank page or screen!
Another fun fact: I built the Red Thread for researchers. Back in my early days as the Executive Producer of TEDxCambridge, I wanted to find a way to help experts make the case that their ideas were “Ideas Worth Spreading,” to quote the TED tagline. I knew story was a powerful way to do that, but by and large, many of the speakers weren’t comfortable with talks that felt too personal or that started with some kind of “once upon a time” story.
How can you do that? With the Red Thread! It’s the process I still use at TEDxCambridge in my role as the event’s Idea Strategist. Every speaker works with me and executive director Dmitri Gunn to use the Red Thread to first refine their idea and then as the basis for building the outlines of their talks. Here’s how I described the process to that grad student on Reddit (this will be familiar to you regular readers…):
Step 1: ESTABLISH A GOAL — Identify a question your audience is currently asking that your research answers. Sometimes this is the question that got you started on your research in the first place (e.g., “Is it possible to strengthen memory retrieval in mice with early-stage Alzheimer’s?”). If you’re speaking to a lay audience, this is likely a related question, but something far less technical (e.g., “How can we extend the ‘normal’ experience of our loved ones how have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?”).
The key is to anchor on something the audience actively wants, as this starts the story in their heads. You don’t have to phrase it as a question in the talk itself, but the question format makes it easier for you in your planning stages.
Step 2: INTRODUCE A PROBLEM the audience doesn’t know about already — In a story, this is what sets up the conflict at the heart of the action. I find the most powerful way to do this in a research-focused talk is to set up a contrast between current or conventional thinking and your new and different approach. Continuing my example above (from neuroscientist and TEDxCambridge speaker Dheeraj Roy), you’d say something like, “Much of the research here focuses on whether or not memories still exist, like looking in a library to see if the book is still there. But I wanted to know: what if the book is there, but the way to get it—the card catalog—isn’t?”
To find this in your own research, the library analogy can still be helpful. Imagine that people asking the Goal question (Step 1) go into a library. In what section are they currently looking for the answer? Where should they be looking instead?
Step 3: CREATE A MOMENT OF TRUTH — There’s a great Greek word for this, “anagnorisis,” the point in a story where a character realizes the true nature of their circumstances. Also called the “midpoint,” or “point of no return,” the “moment of truth” is the point where someone has to choose between what they want (Step 1), what they believe to be true (what you’re introducing in this step), and their current approach (Step 2).
Often with research, your results can serve this function (“We discovered that yes, it’s possible to strengthen the memory retrieval system”). Sometimes you can rely on generally accepted “truths” (a la proverbs and adages). Either way, you need to introduce a concept that your audience can validate without you, either by their own intuition or experience, or by reviewing or replicating your research.
Step 4: DEFINE A CHANGE — In stories, the Change is the one big decision that determines the course of the character’s future (and whether or not there’s a happy ending). This is the single, high-level answer to the question of Step 1 and the result of the “moment of truth” from Step 3. For example, “How can we extend the ‘normal’ experience of our loved ones how have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? By continuing to explore the memory retrieval system as a new target for AD research and possibly, eventual treatments.”
This should be a simple summary of a single idea. What does the research mean? What shift in thinking or behavior does it indicate? (Or what shift in thinking or focus warrants more exploration?)
Step 5: DESCRIBE THE ACTION — This is where you make the high-level Change of Step 4 more concrete. What steps need to happen (or what steps did you take) to achieve the Goal of Step 1? What elements need to be present? How will (or did) you know you’re successful? What are other potential applications? If you’re using the talk to raise funds from grantmakers or investors, this would also be where you go into detail about your team, advisory board, business model, etc.
Step 6: SHOW THE GOAL ACHIEVED (and maybe even give a “free prize“) — A story ends when we know whether or not the main character achieved their goal (and if they didn’t what happened instead). In a talk, you want to revisit your original goal to remind the audience that they got the answer to the question, and where applicable, show what else is possible. Sometimes that’s additional benefits from your results, sometimes that’s simply you indicating other possible applications or implications of it.
As a last step before starting to build the talk itself, I suggest finding the five main elements first (Goal, Problem, Truth, Change, Action), and making sure they work together as a tight “Storyline” for the idea you’re presenting. I use this format as a quick check:
“We can all agree we want to know [GOAL]. Despite barriers we know exist, the real challenge is [TWO-PART PROBLEM]. Yet we can agree it’s true (or “I/we discovered”) that [TRUTH]. That’s why my/our approach is/was to [CHANGE]. Here’s how: [ACTIONS].”
Once that storyline works, build the talk to explain and support it, using the five main elements as sections of the talk. The sections may not be equal in time or length (that’s fine), but they should all be there in one form or another.
While I didn’t include it in my response on Reddit, I give the TEDxCambridge speakers a “starting structure” for their talks — not a formula, but a framework for thinking through what concepts may need to be included to make the strongest case for their ideas. I’ll share a quick version of that in a future post, but if you’re eager to get started, the more detailed version of that structure is something I call the Talk Block Outline.
Whether you’re presenting your own research or helping someone else figure out how to present theirs, starting with the Red Thread can help you translate your expertise into English — and help get attention, income, and impact your idea deserves.Whether you're presenting your own research or helping someone else figure out how to present theirs, starting with the Red Thread can help you translate your expertise into English. Click To Tweet
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