Where teachers meet and learn

ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice Number 25 (November 2017)

Benjamin Haymond - The future of presentations is storytelling with data: Now what does it mean for the EFL profession?

ETAS Journal, Volume 34, Number 3, (Summer 2017), pp. 35-36

In this piece from the ETAS Journal Summer edition’s Voices of Experience section, Benjamin Haymond provides us with exactly what we need to continue to be better teachers in quickly changing times. He shares fascinating research cited in the Harvard Business Review as well as other sources, which shows how important storytelling is in capturing people’s attention. Haymond points out that storytelling is transferrable to several fields, such as writing and marketing, and I very much like the insight it provides as it could also be a powerful tool for teachers.

As language teachers, we are responsible for building up and maintaining the motivation in our classrooms. Often in my courses, I play the role of a coach more than a teacher. Haymond identifies a triad of elements that one must use to effectively persuade people about something. I’m fascinated by the idea he presents and convinced that using the right combination of these three things will also help language teachers support learners.

As teachers of English for Special Purposes (ESP), we take on the challenge of giving learners specific skills, for example, giving presentations. While we can’t all hope to be experts in skills like giving presentations, we have the responsibility to keep ourselves informed about these skills and how they are changing and to understand the context in which learners are expected to use them. This is also where Haymond’s perspective is so useful. He brings to our attention the fact that the relatively new, but now 30-year old tool being used to give presentations is actually leading us away from the skill which was and will continue to be the most important – it’s the great age-old tradition of storytelling. The most salient use of this skill is in giving presentations, so when teaching Business English courses we as teachers need know how to harness this skill and pass this insight on to our learners.

Another compelling insight shared by Haymond is the important role teachers will play in leading students in digital communication now or in the near future. As he points out, nowadays, data is everywhere, digital mediums are everywhere, and using them is becoming key to our students’ success. Developing learners’ ability to engage listeners using multimedia and data tools will be a major task for teachers, because after all, digital tools are here to stay. Our students will increasingly be called upon to create YouTube videos, participate in and lead webinars, or perhaps evaluate online advertising. As Haymond suggests, “getting students to think of new ways to view and present information would be a strong beginning” towards helping them develop skills in these new contexts. The way information is structured and presented plays a vital role in these forms of communication and so, Haymond’s voice of experience is a valuable one.

Finally, I was inspired by the idea near the end of his piece, where Haymond says that a good story, “takes the audience out of the present for a moment and then returns them to reality afterwards. It leads the audience into some greater insight and motivates them to change their ways”. I like to think that good language teaching is the same way. Immersing our students in the language is a powerful and attractive way to learn. In this Voices of Experience article, we see that teaching is not all that different. Connecting with people, creating deeper meaning, and pushing them to change are what good storytelling is about. It’s also what makes teaching challenging and fun, and reading this piece reminds me of that.

What have you learned from your experience? Share your voice of experience in the upcoming Special Supplement on Business English that will appear in the Winter 2018 edition of the fantastic ETAS Journal!

David Kaufher

Editorial Board

VoE

The future of presentations is storytelling with data: Now what does it mean for the EFL profession?

Benjamin Haymond

Storytelling is one of the most effective and important tools for presenting. From the basis of presentations, this skill has not changed in millennia. Yet, too often, visuals such as PowerPoint, which turns 30 this year, take the place of presentations and often ineffectively.

PowerPoint is one of at least 30 different programs (Prezi, emaze, and Keynote are also viable alternatives) used to create visuals for presentations. The development of these tools has changed the nature presentations and new software development will continue to change the visual component with more diverse images and interactive videos.

But for EFL professionals, the task remains the same. A student, someone, whose L1 is not English, needs to be prepared to give a respectable delivery in English. Yet what should the future focus for EFL teachers be? What skills will be necessary to complement future presentation software? How should presentation skills be taught in the future? The answer lies in storytelling and visuals.

Evidence

In 2012, Nancy Duarte published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story”. She found that effective presenters “use the same techniques as great storytellers: By reminding people of the status quo and then revealing the path to a better way, they set up a conflict that needs to be resolved” (Duarte, 2012 online). She found that the method of conflict and resolution helps persuade audiences to change their mindset by creating a message that’s easy to digest, remember, and retell; in essence following Aristotle’s three-part story structure, which is that every story needs a beginning, middle, and end (Carrol, n.d.). 

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Paul Zak stated that a character-driven story caused the brain to release a neuro-chemical, Oxytocin, that was influential in how well people cooperate. He found that increasing tension keeps the attention of audience members, and if audience members' attentions are sustained long enough, they will begin to emotionally connect with the characters involved. Zak’s research found that if enough Oxytocin is released, people are more cooperative and helpful – even in the case of donating more money to charities (Zak, 2014).

A good and effective story can change the way people behave. Zak’s research also found that a poorly constructed story would not only affect people’s attention, they would also lose interest quickly (Zak, 2013). So in order to develop a good story, it has to have a narrative arc. Zak explains this as follows:

It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself (Zak, 2013). 

But how does storytelling mesh with presentation visuals? The late Hans Rosling was an expert in creating data visuals that tell a story. According to the Washington Post, "…[Rosling’s] BBC special and TED Talks sparked an interest in storytelling with data, rather than just with words" (Ingrahm, 2017).

In an article for The Conversation, Zazanna Hucki (2017) draws five lessons that can be utilized from Rosling’s work on data visualisation. For Hucki, Rosling visualized data sometimes using technology or even simpler methods to communicate his ideas. He was also able to frame the conversation so that audience was at once a participant with the information. He could present data and information in a story form while remaining positive and being considerate of biases.

In a 2016 Forbes article, Brent Dykes, a data storyteller and public speaker, wrote

(t)oo often data storytelling is interpreted as just visualising data effectively, however, it is much more than just creating visually-appealing data charts. [Data] storytelling is a structured approach for communicating data insights, and it involves a combination of three key elements: data, visuals, and narrative (Dykes, 2016).

In order for the combination of data and storytelling to work well, context and commentary are needed to fully articulate an insight (Dykes, 2016). With the right visuals and narrative combined with the right data, a presenter will have a powerful story at their disposal and will able to effectively persuade his/her audience to take action.

Implications

In the above section, articles from mostly mainstream and business media outlets have been used to demonstrate the importance of storytelling. But what does it matter to English teachers?

With the technological medium of presentations changing, it is no longer enough to teach introductions, bodies, and conclusions. More is needed. Focus should be on powerful deliveries, tricks and tools for engaging listeners, and incorporating dynamic multimedia clips into the storyline, and data visualisations into presentations. Students should be informed about the results of research demonstrating the cognitive effects of storytelling.

First, students have been exposed to presentation courses before. By the time a student reaches university, they have taken multiple courses involving presentations. One of the complaints this author has most often heard is that students had English presentations in their secondary education. They want something different. By teaching a presentations course with a focus on storytelling, there will be some overlap, but there will also be a new and dynamic element to the course. Not only would this approach complement their previous education, it would also build on it and improve their skills in presenting, and give them the feeling of progress.

The second reason is employability. Storytelling is a skill that can be transferred into writing, design, and marketing and promotions. A search on indeed.com for storytelling yields 5,150 positions in the US; from indeed.co.uk 501 jobs; and from jobs.ch 15 positions. Thus there is a demand for this skill. By providing students with these skills, the opportunities available to them will improve.

There is also lifespan. Storytelling skills will not lose their importance over time. Technology will change and the medium for presentations will change. It would be reasonable to assume that our students will have to participate in, and lead webinars. They may have to narrate a presentation online where the viewer only sees the slides or video. Then what? With storytelling, they will be provided with a skill that they can utilize in multiple situations, and still be able to remain engaging.

Finally, there is the point of data visualisation. It is not in the realm of mastery for EFL teachers to be experts in data visualisation, but it would be reasonable to provide students with examples, and lead them to sources where they can learn and experiment by themselves. Data visualisation is a fascinating branch that incorporates design, creativity, and numbers. It is more than just creating a table or a graph, but rather creating a presentation visual that is compelling, awe-inspiring, and fascinating. Getting students to think of new ways to view and present information would be a strong beginning.

A good story is more than an introduction, body, and conclusion. It provides insight into the background of the speaker. If done well, it takes the audience out of the present for a moment and then returns them to reality afterwards. It leads the audience into some greater insight and motivates them to change their ways. It connects people to the speaker and to each other, and provides a foundation and a reason to connect again. One that effectively grasps the use of multimedia and data visualization will add to the story and provide another layer to the narration.

Some online resources

Beyond ELT, there are many resources for storytelling. First there are videos for demonstration. On YouTube, there is the Scottish Storytelling Centre channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuS51i5TYePy1z7n622kWyA), and The Moth (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxw-YwaBR9lVa1fmreWy94g). The Moth is a New York based storytelling community dedicated to the craft of personal storytelling. For more videos oriented towards the professional bent, there is TED. There are many great TED videos that are well done and entertaining. Many of Hans Rosling’s videos are on TED. For Business English, there are movie clips on YouTube, one of which includes a sales pitch using Jenga blocks from the film The Big Short. For an interesting overview of data visualization, see the Art of Data Visualization from PBS Off book. 

References

Carrol, L. (n.d.) Aristotelian narrative structures. Retrieved from http://penandthepad.com/aristotelian-narrative-structures-3012.html

Duarte, N. (2012). Structure your presentation like a story. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/structure-your-presentation-li

Dykes, B. (2016). Data storytelling: The essential data science skill everyone needs. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentdykes/2016/03/31/data-storytelling-the...

Hucki, Z. (2017). Beyond the data: Five important lessons we can learn from Hans Rosling. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/beyond-the-data-five-important-lessons-we-can...

Ingrahm, C. (2017). Remembering Hans Rosling, the visualization pioneer who made data dance. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/beyond-the-data-five-important-lessons-we-can... 

Zak, P. (2014). Why your brain loves good storytelling. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling

Zak, P. (2013). How stories change the brain. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain

 

About the Author

Benjamin Haymond is an English lecturer, writer, and communications consultant with more than 10 years of experience in universities in Germany and Switzerland. He currently teaches at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Business School in Lucerne, and the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts School for Information Technology in Rotkreuz, Switzerland.

benjamin.haymond@hslu.ch