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Suspense is a powerful tool. In story-telling, not knowing what is going to happen or how the story is going to end can grab attention and sustain interest. In giving a research presentation, one is often encouraged to "tell a story". One could certainly make use of suspense to do so.

We are interested in how best to predict X. Previous research has indicated that P Q and R could be crucial here. [much later] It turned out that... [pause for drama]... variable K was surprisingly the strongest predictor of X!

However, most presentations take a more up-front approach.

Welcome to my presentation entitled "How K can be used to predict X"...

The latter approach follows the advice that I have often received, which can be summarised by the maxim:

Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them.

So, is it a bad idea to use suspense with the intention of making the "story" of your presentation more engaging?

[This question was inspired by an answer given elsewhere on Academia.SE.]

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    I think it's highly dependent on the presenter's skill level. Suspense... is just like clothes... sometimes you are excited to see them being taken off, sometimes you wonder why they are even on, and sometimes you just wish they were still on. – Penguin_Knight Sep 15 '16 at 17:57
  • Another effective alternative is quizzing the audience: "So, which predictor do you think is the strongest? Any guesses?" – Federico Poloni Sep 15 '16 at 18:26
  • It depends also a lot on the venue: if you are going to give a talk in a conference where you have just 15 min to talk, it might not be easy to add the suspense in the right way. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 15 '16 at 19:37
  • I think, we all do similar kind of suspense to highlight the proposed scheme or approach compared to previous related work. This 'suspense' is highly related to the background knowledge. The presenter must mention the specific topic to narrow down audience number if the talk is not very general. – Mithun Sep 16 '16 at 0:35
  • Should you do this, please adhere to the rules of writing detective fiction, in particular, "The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story". Introduce variable K before outing her as the strongest predictor. – svavil Sep 25 '16 at 20:50
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I believe that using suspense in a talk is a terrible idea on any but the shortest rhetorical time scales.

The reason is that, at any given time, a significant fraction of your audience will not be paying attention. It doesn't matter whether they're twiddling with their phone or just thinking about what you said two slides ago: the point is, it's terribly easy for people to miss bits of a talk. As a result, if you build your talk as a suspenseful mystery where somebody has to be paying attention at the right times, then you'll probably fail to convey key information to a significant fraction of your audience.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using it in the short range as a bit of rhetorical flourish, e.g., "And what did we find? The wires were covered with purple spots!" Once you start putting long-range dependencies in your talk, however, you're gambling with attention. Likewise, even without putting in a dependency, if you say your key idea only once in your talk, you're decreasing the number of people who will hear and remember it, compared to if you say it in "preview" and again when you get to it in detail.

In short: don't hide information from your audience. There's plenty of other, more effective ways to make a scientific presentation interesting.

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    To add to your last point, there are plenty of other, involuntary ways to instill confusion in your audience. – svavil Sep 25 '16 at 20:39
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Have you ever read a badly written book or short story, where the author had a fine idea, but just didn't manage to pull it off?

You'll just have to try this out and see if you can pull it off.

Note, when I say "try it out", I mean on your friends. Practice talks.


I predict that this will be a growing trend. Cooking magazines and DIY magazines now often use a story-telling format. Instead of just plunking down on the page the recipe for roasting a chicken that was found to give the best results in the testing labs, nowadays the author tells a story -- and it's a personal story, told in the first person. It's a journey of discovery... to arrive at the best recipe for roasting chicken! It sounds funny, but actually you do get drawn in.

Also, consider the new field of creative nonfiction. Wikipedia defines it: "Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives."

You can laugh at this too, and see it as part of the general shift toward egocentrism, where the researcher-author has to be at the center of everything. The author can't just expound about the material, making it interesting and understandable. Nooo, he has to make everything about himself!

But if you've read any good creative nonfiction, you'll see that when the author can pull it off, it's wonderful.


Jake was concerned about a distracted member of the audience missing a key bit and therefore being confused for the whole rest of the talk. That can easily happen in a traditional talk structure as well.

Hopefully, if you are a researcher who is interested in experimenting with more novel structures, you are also someone who knows how to use, or can learn how to use, techniques performers in the fine arts have learned, of getting the audience's attention before the critical point that must not be missed. For example, a small joke to wake everybody up. Sometimes reducing your volume at a certain place can have a mesmerizing effect. Etc.


Personally I think the key to not overdoing the novel stuff is to make sure that it doesn't detract from the science. The takeaway message needs to be "the science that was presented is fascinating", not "the scientist put on a great performance". In other words, the science needs to take center stage, as opposed to you taking center stage.

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    +1 for "takeaway message needs to be the science presented is fascinating". – Captain Emacs Sep 16 '16 at 13:26
  • I would back up what @aparente001 said above. Basic human psychology is geared towards engaging with stories, and this is no different from the humans who will be listening to your talk. If you want them to remember your presentation, you must include aspects of storytelling, but suspense is one of them. Simply giving them the facts defeats the point of giving a talk. – Bruce Becker Sep 16 '16 at 14:05

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