by Sharon Boyd

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like presenting at conferences. I do it, because that’s what you do to get your research “out there”, but it takes a lot for me to get out and get talking. I start with the best of intentions and then my confidence gradually seeps away — usually hitting bottom when I get the confirmation that my abstract has been accepted. Now I’ll have to present it!

In reflecting on this, I traced the source to that specific moment when I stood up with my slides on the screen and panicked. I would think of all the things I could have included, look down at notes that made sense five minutes earlier, and completely forget all the preparation I had done. A high-speed presentation would then follow, with me mostly reading points off the slides or shuffling my papers. I went to all the usual presentation training sessions, I tried trimming down my slide content, using more images, and using note cards. Nothing worked for me.

And then… I read “Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs a Story”, by Randy Olson.

Olson’s book focuses on the poor level of writing in the sciences, and the lack of imagination in communicating creative ideas to diverse audiences. At the core of the book is the simple idea of the ABT — AND, BUT, THEREFORE. As Olson says, this structure underpins all good yarns.

“I can tell you the story of a little girl living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of Oz, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home.” (Olson, 2015; p 16)

The premise of the book is that all communication can start from the ABT root. It can help with your research “elevator pitch”, with abstracts, with chapters and papers. Where the method has really helped me is with presentations. Reading the book, I could see that my earlier presentations had been what Olson terms AAA — all AND, AND, AND. This produced a long list of “things”, where I invariably forgot at least one! Using my ABTs, I can keep the three elements in mind much more easily; I have my core ABT in my head when I stand up to present. I’m telling my story, I know what has happened and, more importantly, where it is going. This has made it easier to present, as having a good hold of my research story arc has bolstered my confidence.

My confidence has also increased due to the change in audience response. Instead of dozing off halfway through my unstructured ramble, I’m now getting really good questions. This hangs on the BUT part of the method. By giving the audience a “problem” or challenge, I invite everyone in to think about what they would do to address it. When I outline what I am doing (THEREFORE) it may leave them wondering why I did X (my plan) and not Y (their idea). That has led to some very useful discussions which have — and here I get excited — extended into after-presentation coffee chats.

I started this post by saying that I don’t really like conferences. I’m still not a fan, but I find it a lot easier, and more importantly, more productive in sharing my research. And the research feels like my research now that I have found my story.


Olson, R. (2015). Houston, we have a narrative: Why science needs story. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. [Available in hardcopy and ebook via DiscoverEd]

Image CC-0 once-upon-a-time-.jpg from @Ramdlon on Pixabay

Sharon Boyd is undertaking a PhD in Digital Education with a shimmer of Outdoor Education. She is investigating whether the relationship to our places may add something meaningful to our learning experiences. She wonders if technology can help us to feel a sense of engagement, a relationship, with someone else’s “local” place? If this place-relationship at distance is possible, can we facilitate that interaction in our learning activities?


Twitter: @sboydie

A blog by PhD students at Moray House School of Education & Sport at University of Edinburgh, discussing research, current topics, PhD life, and more.

A blog by PhD students at Moray House School of Education & Sport at University of Edinburgh, discussing research, current topics, PhD life, and more.