Friday, July 17, 2020

My favorite "high yield" guides to telling better stories

Guest post by Eric Sanford

In medical school, we usually have five lectures’ worth of new material to memorize each day. Since we can’t simply remember it all, we are always seeking “high yield” resources (a term used so often by med students that it quickly becomes a joke): those concise one or two-pagers that somehow contain 95 percent of what we need to know for our exams. My quest of finding the highest yield resources has continued in full force after becoming a PhD student.

A major goal of mine has been to improve my scientific communication skills (you know, writing, public speaking, figure-making… i.e. those extremely-important skills that most of us scientists are pretty bad at), and I’ve come across a few very high yield resources as I’ve worked on this. Here are my favorites so far:

Resonate, by Nancy Duarte:

  • The best talks are inspiring, but “be more inspiring” is not easy advice to follow.

  • This book teaches you how to turn your content into a story that inspires an audience.

  • I received extremely positive feedback and a lot of audience questions the first time I gave a talk where I tried to follow the suggestions of this book.

  • This was both the most fun and the most useful of all my recommendations.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte:

  • Tufte is probably the most famous “data visualization” guru, and I think this book, his first book, is his best one. (I’ve flipped through the sequels and would also recommend the chapter on color from “Envisioning Information.”)

  • This book provides a useful framework for designing graphics that convey information in ways that are easy (easier?) for readers to understand. Some pointers include removing clutter, repeating designs in “small multiples”, labeling important elements directly, and using space consistently when composing multiple elements in the same figure.

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, pages 18-25:

Words to Avoid When Writing, by Arjun Raj

Raj Lab basic Adobe Illustrator (CC) guide, by Connie Jiang

There are many other great resources out there that are also worth going through if you have the time (Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Bizup and Williams is another excellent writing guide), but for me these ones above had the highest amount-learned-per-minute-of-concentration-invested. 

Guest post by Eric Sanford


  1. Thanks for the suggestions. I looked at "Resonate" previously, but couldn't see how to apply it to scientific talks (it seemed very heavily geared towards people who do commercial product marketing, etc.).

    Could you give us some concrete examples of things you changed/did in your presentations as a result of reading the book?


    1. Sure! One thing Nancy Duarte suggests in the book is to frequently establish contrasts, with a frequent contrast being the difference between "what is" and "what could be". She summarizes a lot of great presentations and speeches into these sparklines that clearly label the "what is" parts vs. the "what could be" parts.

      One thing I tried that helped was (1) outline the major "what is" vs. "what could be" parts of my project (2) write each part onto a separate post-it note (3) arrange and re-arrange the post-it notes into a structure that made sense, with frequent switching between "what is" and "what could be". I think it helped establish a rhythm in the presentation.

      Another concrete thing I did was greatly shorten my introduction to be more like a story with main characters: I personified two cells (giving them names) and showed the different journeys they took, then asked what might be different between the two at the end. It seemed silly to me but the audience really grabbed onto it and ended up staying much more engaged for the rest of the talk. Hope this helps!

  2. Thanks! That's definitely helpful.