Scientists, whether telling stories or lecturing can learn a tremendous amount from Andy Christie’s famous opening line, “I’m about 5000 feet above Albany on this perfect, beautiful, cloudless day when the girl who just pushed me out of the airplane starts screaming, ‘Wait, wait, your chute!’”
That is my all-time favorite beginning of a story. He gives the absolutely barest minimum to create the right image, and then puts us directly into the most interesting part of the story. Now clearly not every story should begin in the middle of a dramatic action like that — that would get repetitive quite fast — but the principle is quite good. This rule* goes by a lot of names. At The Moth they like to say, “start in the action.” We tend to say, “don’t over-introduce” or “jump right into the story.”
There are actually two components to it. The first is to not spend too much time in the lead-up. Don’t tell us your whole life story, just the part we need to understand what follows. Our format is one that depends on the plot moving forward, and it can’t move forward until it’s started.
The second is what makes this the #2 most common note we give on Story Collider stories. There’s a piece of advice that used to be pervasive in advice about science communication:
“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re telling them, then tell them what you told them.”
I literally learned this at my dad’s knee. When I was going in middle and high school in the 90s he was an associate professor cutting his teeth on public lectures. He would repeat that refrain every time I needed to present something in class. At the time it was state-of-the-art, and I probably did quite well — and I know he did. But he’s moved past it, as (thankfully) has most of the field.**
The problem is that it’s completely antithetical to all the principles of narrative and drama. Those evolved, in part, to hold an audience’s attention and keep them interested, and more importantly to deliver an experience in a satisfying way. One of those principles is that a plot needs surprise, it needs the unexpected. “Predictable” is one of the strongest insult you throw at a movie. A really easy way to be predicable is to tell people at the top what the whole plot is.
Now, this isn’t just a problem for scientists. David Crabb, one of my favorite storytellers and also an excellent teacher, recently tweeted “Don’t tell me what you’re about to tell me. Just tell me.”
But it is a very common problem. Resist the urge to let us know where you’re going. Instead, let the story unfold. Jump into the action and let us experience it as you did. It’ll be stronger, and we’ll remember it.
*As always with writing advice, that’s “rule.” The point is that if you break it, know why.
**Super-fun fact: Googling that phrase brings up lots of results like, “How to Tell Someone You Won’t Go to Prom with Them: 5 Steps.” Step 1, “Make sure that you don’t want to go to prom with this person.”
Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He now writes and performs stories about science and being a scientist, and is a Moth StorySLAM champion. He is the co-founder and director of The Story Collider, where people are invited to tell stories of their personal experience of science, and is a former writer for TED.com.