How to Talk about Math so People Want to Listen

Paul Zorn at St. Olaf College of the MAA Science Committee introduced Rachel Levy, the MAA Deputy Executive Director, and she then introduced Flora Lichtman, the host of Every Little Thing on Gimlet Media (she used to work for Science Friday). Flora, a non-math person and a professional nerdy journalist, told us:

The overarching picture is that telling stories is really hard.

Flora told us that there were three keys to talking about math so people want to listen.  It turned out that a lot of people want to talk about math so people want to listen!  It was a very crowded room.

I ended up on the floor in the very front, hence the angles for the photos…

  1. Who’s your audience?
  2. What’s your hook?
  3. What are your visuals?

Rachel had been a high school and middle school teacher, and after getting her Ph.D. she tried to write some activities for high school students based on her PDE thesis.  “It was not easy for me to communicate what I was trying to communicate,” she said. But eventually in 2013 her article came out for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and she talked about how that very article ended up being more helpful for a broader audience than she expected.

Then Rachel and Flora broke us into a small group activity (I love these interactive talks!) The made-up scenario involved us trying to explain to someone with no STEM background, but with discretionary funds that we’re trying to get, what we work on.

Since I’m here I might as well try to come up with some bullet points related to my thesis:

  • We can organize sets of data into equations that describe rotations or reflections and other symmetries of objects like triangles, cubes, and other spaces.
  • Once we have those sets of equations, we can come up with basic properties that all odd-sided objects have, or other generalizations from the equations, which are a way we can handle the objects.
  • My thesis work deals with all of these equations- what happens if I pick a random one, which in turn corresponds to a random object?

Woof. That was rough.

Rachel and Flora both talked about editing down from 15 points to just one essential kernel or idea per communication: “What can you strip away and still retain the message you want to send?”

Mathematicians are very detail oriented, because one wrong detail means the proof is wrong.  So we like to give people all of the details and make it very airtight.  This does not work.

Then we got into groups of 3-4 people and shared our 30-second pitches.  My group actually did great! We had one DOD person, me, and a person at a teaching college, so it wasn’t the worst. I ended up grabbing one person’s coffee cup and rotating it, then showing where you could do a mirror symmetry, and saying that you can describe those symmetries with some equations. And you can come up with a set of equations for all objects with symmetries in the universe. And I looked at random sets of equations and figured out what I could say about a random set of equations, and thereby a random object.

In radio stories, we talk about motivating people’s curiosity. You have to work for every second of attention.

Know your AUDIENCE and try to craft your hook to capture that exact audience.

“Storytelling is organizing information in a compelling and clear way.”

The HOOK is the idea that grabs the audience. It should create a question int he mind of your audience that makes them want to know more. It’s about creating tension that makes people want to hear the information you’re about to tell them.

  1. Tell an intriguing story.

Flora gave the example of the Stochasticity episode from Radiolab and played a few minutes from it. She showed us how the first few minutes drew people in, but didn’t yet ask a question. Next the Radiolab hosts gave us a question to think about, to set the tone for the rest of the piece:

How should we think about that story? Is our world full of magic and mystery and strangeness, or is it full of chance?

By the end of the episode, they promise, we’ll have a new way to think about the specific intriguing story.

2. Relate to something the audience is interested in.

Next Flora played a few minutes from a Steven Strogatz video, possibly this one.

He related the math world into things that everyday people could relate to, like fireflies. Flora warned us that using the “hidden language” or “secret world of mathematics” as a hook is very difficult to do and really only works once.

Other ways to hook people:

  • Use personal passions, “I” pronouns. Statements like “I can’t stop thinking about….” or “I’m fascinated with…” can draw people in.
  • Use practical applications and other things people can relate to (self-driving cars, etc.). News events that occur (hurricanes, etc.)

The audience was again quite engaged with this session. An audience member asks about analogies. Flora and Rachel warn about using analogies as a hook. The analogy is complete into and unto itself.  The hook is there to create tension and it’s there for your story to satisfy.

So  next, they had us do another breakout session and try to form a hook for our 30-second spiel that we’d done earlier.  For me, my hook would be something like, is there a way to describe the symmetries of all objects, or most objects, if I picked an object at random?  See what happens when you make Yen think on the page? No sentences are formed!

Rachel did this incredible way to get dozens of people who were talking to stop talking. She clapped in syncopated (is that the word I want?) rhythms, and paused, and people would clap back until all the scores of people in the room were clapping in sync. By scores I mean maybe 65-75 people (which is way more than the 50 chairs in the room).

Then people nominated their group members to offer their hooks, and Flora workshopped them to up the tension and decrease the jargon. One example was a person who said “Pictures on a surface can tell you about that surface, and that’s what I think about.” First Flora called out “surface” as jargon, and a few audience members who didn’t know what the person was talking about suggested ants on a balloon or donut.  Then the original person said “CW complexes” and WHAM I yelled over “scaffolding, like building scaffolding, on a funky shaped donut or Cheeto.” That guy loved it. Whoo teamwork makes the dreamwork!

One image can capture people’s attention in a way that words often can’t.

Flora joked that if you work with explosions, robots, or animals, your life of describing research is easy.

Rachel stepped in to say that there are many people who can’t see or are colorblind etc. So it’s good to think about how to capture information in a way that’s accessible for a broad audience. [Also, my editor in my day job is always cutting out excess “so”s that begin sentences. You can think about it when you write!]

Flora then showed a segment of the Powers of Ten video:

Next Rachel told us about hiring an illustrator to draw some cartoons for an article that she and her co-author wrote about whales. Then the article got picked up by Hakai Magazine and they created an animation to go along with an article that they wrote. Rachel ended up narrating the animation that accompanied that article.

For a small amount of money you can get a great picture and you can give an artist some work.

For our final breakout session, we had to come up with a visual that could help with drawing people in to our communication.

They wrapped up with a handout, which is available here: tinyurl.com/TalkMathJMM19. 

And then they promoted the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship! So I stood up and told everyone to think about it and how great it is! Unfortunately the deadline was yesterday, but I encouraged graduate students to think about it in the future.

Flora said that “Every story is different and it takes a long time to just get the phrasing right.” She recounted 20 or so drafts for each project she’s done, and of pitching ideas to test audiences. Rachel encouraged us to keep trying to communicate what we do to various audiences.

Every time someone sits down and asks you “What do you do?”, that’s an opportunity to practice.

Flora said that a good story makes you want to know the next thing. Rachel pointed out that when communicating math, the audience should be asking you questions.  If they aren’t asking questions, that means that they’re lost or not interested.

Overall this was great!

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