Tell a good story

Too much, too little, just right?

Part of telling a good story is figuring out what to leave out — and figuring out how to give yourself permission to do so. It’s never an easy process. And of course, the right amount to leave out or keep in will be very different for each medium or setting:

When I’m doing fieldwork in a neighborhood or park, people always come up to me and ask what I’m doing. The classic “30-second elevator speech” is way too long for these settings. I found I had to sum up my work in about one run-on sentence worth. For many people, that was enough information. They were content to know I was doing science (and content not to call the cops on me!). If they engaged further, I’d then let their questions guide the conversation.

A presentation is a brief overview of your topic. You will always have to leave out a lot of the details, and many times you will have to leave out entire lines of inquiry — or sum up years of hard work in a sentence or two (“We also tested X and Y, and found that those weren’t the important mechanisms.”). This is the tricky middle ground, giving enough detail to make it solid and worthwhile, yet keeping the story well focused so even the distracted people in your audience still follow along.

Papers and reports have more space and need more details, but trimming things down is still important. Many data tables, supporting graphs, and other necessary information are not actually part of your main story. The appendices are a wonderful tool for these sorts of things. The main body needs to stay focused on a solid, clean story. Even in a long government report, the main body needs to be worth reading cover-to-cover. The appendices, by contrast, are for readers to dip in as needed. Some may want the climate graphs, others may be digging into the statistical outputs. If it’s not something every reader needs in order to follow your story, consider it for an appendix instead.

The shuffle draft

One of my favorite tools to figure out the story I want to tell is the shuffle draft. It’s a pile of index cards or post-its that you shuffle around and re-group to structure details and pieces into a good story.

Write down your main messages, key points, and supporting details, each on their own post-it. Be sure that each post-it has only one point — using a sharpie or similar marker can help, since that makes it impossible to cram too much onto the post-it. Don’t worry about order or grouping at this stage.

Once you have enough things written down that it feels mostly complete, the fun begins! Start moving them around and grouping them together. The goal is to start by forming small groups akin to paragraphs, with one overarching main point (like a topic sentence) and a handful of supporting details. Often you’ll find yourself with a group of details and no stated main point yet — so grab a new post-it and write yourself a main point. Then start organizing and linking groups together. Move them around (and set some aside as needed to stay focused on your main story), and organize them into sections. Try out different alternatives and see which makes the most sense to you.