Bring the dinosaurs, let them run amok, save the loose ends for a sequel.
You’re asked to give a research talk, but you’re stuck for inspiration when putting together your slides. Your want your talk to engage, entertain, and inspire.
You’re not sure where to start, and how to make it happen.
Enter Jurassic Park. 128 minutes of non-stop, engrossing action.
Once you’ve seen it, you never forget it. Jurassic Park stays with you. It’s a movie that you watch, on the edge of your seat, although you know the plot and the ending: island paradise, stranded humans, cunning dinosaurs running amok, dinosaurs hunting humans, humans escaping narrowly, humans bonding under stressful circumstances, humans finally escaping, hungry dinosaurs left behind for the next sequel.
Jurassic Park has great takeaways that are worth incorporating into your next research talk.
Promise dinosaurs in the title.
What lures you into Jurassic Park? Dinosaurs. The movie title screams dinosaurs. The movie title combines two words whose juxtaposition is startling, because they don’t have much to do with each other and you’ve never heard these words uttered together — the word “Jurassic” next to the innocuous word, “Park.” The title is short, direct, and memorable. The title also happens to be a proper noun, the name of the location of all the movie’s happenings. The title stirs your imagination as it evokes dinosaurs roaming inside a park, perhaps even alongside humans. You haven’t seen this park yet, but you’re sold.
- Keep the title of your talk short, direct, and memorable.
- Juxtapose words that are rarely used together. It makes the title interesting.
- Use words (think “dinosaurs” or “Jurassic”) that make people want to attend your talk.
- Use a unique proper noun to name your research, system, algorithm, or approach.
Build up the suspense.
Jurassic Park opens with humans who are paleontologists. Several minutes into the movie, you’re treated to multiple conversations about dinosaurs and you learn new scientific facts about them. You are yet to see a single dinosaur, but you know they are coming. You see iconic images that are forever burned into your brain, such as the gates of Jurassic Park bordered by flickering torches, with the massive wooden doors swinging open to reveal the road into the dinosaur park. You’re impatient and eager to see the dinosaurs, but you’re drinking in the new facts and learning more about your subject. The fact that you don’t see the dinosaurs (that you came for) several minutes into the movie, builds suspense beautifully. When the dinosaurs do show up, it’s a dramatic, well-timed, a-ha moment complete with the right music, scenery, and perspective. The audience’s glimpse of that first dinosaur, a brachiosaurus, is a big deal in the movie. It’s magical.
Image by Bianca van Dijk from Pixabay
- Build up your talk. Introduce the characters (the problems you are solving), and introduce any key locations and artifacts (set the scene).
- Don’t give away your first a-ha moment too early. Your a-ha moment is big, and deserves a proper build-up. So, string the audience along for a bit, explaining new facts, keeping them intrigued.
- Build up the suspense towards that first a-ha moment.
- Structure your a-ha moment so that it makes an entrance. In a movie, you get to use dramatic music to make a point. When you give a talk, your tone, the inflections in your speech, the flourishes of your hands, and the tasteful animations in your slides, all have the same impact. Your audience needs to feel that this moment is a big deal.
Sequence dinosaur encounters.
After the first dinosaur shows up in Jurassic Park, you see the movie characters discuss the situation with anxiety, but you realize that they don’t yet see the full scope of their dinosaur problem. Watching the movie, you are way ahead of the characters, and can start to forecast the nightmare. As Han Solo would say, you “get a bad feeling about this.”
The scene is loaded with additional challenges — there’s a thunderstorm, the power goes out, the roads are muddy, the characters get separated from each other, and, yes, there are villains. You begin to develop empathy for the unwitting characters. And, then, it happens. The problem erupts in full view. The dinosaurs break loose, they run amok, they are hungry, and they are coming for the humans.
You watch the humans on the run, pursued by dinosaurs everywhere they go. There is simply no safe place to hide. What follows is a back-to-back sequence of heart-pounding, tense dinosaur encounters. The characters barely escape from an angry dinosaur, only to find another one. A thundering T-Rex chases a Jeep in the rain. A herd of velociraptors, working together in an eerie human-like way, tries to hunt down humans hiding in a kitchen. This roller-coaster of escapades forms the bulk of the movie: dinosaur chases humans (problem), humans cleverly escape (solution), a different dinosaur chases different humans (problem), humans escape again (solution), over and over again. Every escapade is set in a different location, with a different type of dinosaur, different characters, a different type of pursuit, and a different type of escape.
Each new dinosaur appears worse than the last — hungrier, nastier, more ferocious, and more relentless. You marvel at the cunning of the dinosaurs and the resourcefulness of the humans. You know the formula for each escapade by now, but you are still on the edge of your seat. You can’t look away.
- Introduce the problem you’re working on for your research. It has to be bold, striking, and weighty. This is your equivalent of the “hungry dinosaurs run amok and want to eat the humans” problem statement.
- Capture all of the challenges and complications underlying the problem. You’re not just talking about the primary and obvious challenge (dinosaurs on the loose), but also on the secondary challenges (heavy rains, mud slides, no electricity, villains). Paint a picture of how dire things are.
- Your talk now becomes a narrative of smaller problems, along with their solutions. Think of each problem as an isolated dinosaur escapade.
- String the problems together in a way that they make sense, that they build up, with the more complex problems towards the end. Think of how each dinosaur encounter is worse than the previous one.
- Use the formula of a problem-solution-problem-solution-problem-solution sequence so that the audience gets bits of relief in between the problems, but gets familiar with your thought process. Think of how the movie characters get to catch their breath in between the adrenalin-charged dinosaur encounters. Give your audience that chance to heave a small sigh of relief every time you solve a problem, and before you charge into the next one.
- Emphasize the resourcefulness underlying each solution. Emphasize what it took to solve the problem. Include the little details that draw the reader in and make them marvel at the ingenuity of your solution to each problem.
Provide closure with the final escape.
Jurassic Park is a science-fiction adventure film. You know how it will end — the central characters will escape, the dinosaurs will be thwarted, the humans will have had an unforgettable adventure, friendships will be formed, life will go on. You walk away satisfied, feeling that you got your money’s worth. You have a sense of closure: you came for the dinosaurs and you saw them (check), you learnt something new about dinosaurs (check), your imagination is fired up (check), you got to see some ingenious escapes and heart-pounding dinosaur chases (check), and you’re intrigued enough to want to learn more on your own (check). Most of all, you wonder when the sequel will come out.
Jurassic Park made amateur paleontologists of its audience. Through the movie characters, the audience learns a surprising thing or two about velociraptors, triceratops, gallimimus, brachiosaurus, dinosaur anatomy, dinosaur food habits, and more. The audience walks away thoroughly impressed with dinosaurs. The movie inspired generations of dinosaur-obsessed children to research dinosaurs on their own.
- Give your audience a sense of closure. In this part of your talk, help them feel that you solved the problems in a tidy fashion. The final escape needs to feel good.
- Prepare a check-list of the things you want your audience to have read and understood from your talk, and walk through that check-list without making it obvious that it’s a check-list.
- Make the audience feel more knowledgable in your research area, as you wrap up your talk. Share surprising insider facts and unique lessons learned that come from your first-hand experience in doing the work. Share things that you discovered, that you found unexpected, and that most text-books in your area wouldn’t cover.
- Fire up the audience’s imagination, and make them want to learn more about your line of research. If you do this right, perhaps they’ll even dig up more of your work and start to follow it.
Leave loose ends for a sequel.
Loose ends serve a purpose. Unfinished business serves a purpose. In the closing scenes of Jurassic Park, the T-rex makes a surprise reappearance for one last encounter with the humans. As the central good characters make their final escape from the Park, the T-rex is showing standing, roaring in the ruins of the Park visitor center. The T-rex appears robbed of its satisfaction, as the humans escape.
What a powerful, dramatic ending. Not only are the good guys alive, but so are the dinosaurs. These dinosaurs just won’t quit. They demand satisfaction. They are raring to go for a future encounter. Secretly, you root for them, too. This moment sets up the possibility of a sequel. Maybe some of the central characters return to the Park years later? Maybe the dinosaurs escape from the Park and enter into cities? Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to see those heart-pounding T-rex car chases again?
- Leave the audience with a sense of the unfinished business. If you can throw in a surprise problem at the ending, do so. The audience should know you still have your work cut out for you, and that the remaining work is still exciting.
- Fire up the audience’s imagination with where you could take this work next. They don’t know what your sequel (talk) might be, but they can start to imagine, speculate, and, yes, anticipate.
- Talk about the loose ends, and talk about them with confidence. The audience should feel that you are the best-equipped person to dream up sequels. They should feel that these sequels will be as good as the original.
Jurassic Park is a movie, a work of fiction. It is not a scientific documentary, nor does it claim to be one. A research talk, on the other hand, is a scientific presentation that should be grounded in fact, not fiction. What is important to learn from Jurassic Park, though, is how its narrative unfolds, and how the excitement for a topic is kept afloat throughout the movie.
The way that Jurassic Park maintains suspense and excitement for a whopping 128 minutes, is remarkable. At the end, the audience is left with a sense of wonder (“I’ve never seen a movie like this before”) and a sense of closure, while simultaneously eagerly awaiting the sequel.
28 years later, Jurassic Park still enthralls, still terrifies, and still fires up the imagination. Jurassic Park feels satisfying, from start to finish. It delivers.
And that is worth copying.