Advice for Students: Ideas as Stories

a pen sitting on a pad of paper with two extra pens beside it

Communicating ideas

As a student, you need to learn how to explain your work to others.

Which is to say that you need to convince other people that they should care about what you do.

And that's all about the story you tell.

(This isn't a skill only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

Tell a story

When you share your ideas and your work with others, you are creating a narrative. You are telling a story. The key thing is to tell a compelling story about your work and to frame your work so that it means something to your audience.

Start big. Situate your work in the larger context. The question you should answer is not what are you doing? The question you should answer is why should anyone care?

Find a big important thing people care about. Tell them how it impacts their lives. Then explain how your work is related to that big important thing.

For example. Say you are working on a robotic language learning companion for preschool kids. The robot is supposed to help them learn new words. Why do we care? Well, language and literacy are important for everything humans do. It's the primary means of human knowledge transfer! Language is super important. Plus, there's research showing that if we don't get enough language exposure early on (e.g., ages 3-5), it'll be hard to catch up in school later. Oh no! Language skills are important for academic and life success! But not everyone has those skills! Enter robot. This robot can help young kids develop language skills at a critical time, thus saving them from a life of misery and pain!

Or, you know, something less dramatic. But you get the idea. Situate your work in a larger problem. Then dive in and explain how what you're doing fits into the larger problem, even if it's just a tiny little piece of that larger problem.

Make your audience care. Tell them a story.

Monday, January 25, 2016 - tags: advice grad-school writing


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