Why Telling Stories is Important for Engineers

The times they are a-changin’.

This post seems to be older than 15 years—a long time on the internet. It might be outdated.

Over the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort, both on my blog and in meatspace, to become a better story teller. I’m still not a great story teller, but I do think I’m improving.

Robert Krulwich is the co-host of Radiolab on WNYC, which is “what you’d get if you put Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life in a blender.”1 This past spring, Krulwich gave the commencement speech at CalTech. He called it “Tell Me a Story” and he makes a case for the importance of telling stories.

From www.radiolab.org:

[In] the next hour or two, there you’ll be in your cap and gown surrounded by your family and by friends, and by friends of friends, and somebody, you know, maybe an uncle or a buddy, somebody, is gonna turn to you and say, “So, like, what were you doing at Caltech? I mean what were you working on?” Not that they really wanna know, you know. But after all you’ve been here for four years, so you know, or a different number if you’re a grad student, you must have been doing something here. So it’s only polite to ask.

And I know that a lot of you have scientifically illiterate dads and moms, some brothers and some sisters, not all of them, of course, but some. And let’s assume that one of these people…he’s not a scientist, he’s not an engineer, and the last time he had…a complex thought about biology or math was back in eleventh grade, when he got a C- in both subjects and vowed ever never to think about biology or math ever again. But because this is your day, and because this person loves you, or because he can’t really think of anything to say after ‘Hey!’, he asks you about your work.

And to make it still more interesting, let’s assume that if you explain to this person, what you’ve been working on, you might have to use certain words like protein or quark, or differential or maybe hypotenuse, and if you do, they’re gonna listen to you very, very politely, but upstairs those words are gonna mean not a whole lot to them, you know. Cause science is not their thing. They can lip-sync every words to ‘N Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” but you know hypotenuse is hard.

So here’s my question. When you are asked, ‘What are you working on?’, should you think, ‘There’s no way I can talk about my science with this guy, cause I don’t have the talent, I don’t have the words, I don’t have the patience to do it. It’s too hard. And anyway what’s the point?’, which is, by the way, not an unusual position. No less than Isaac Newton, and I mean Sir Isaac Newton, that one, when asked, ‘Why did you make your Principia Mathematica, your earthshaking book about gravity and laws of motion so impossibly hard to read?’, he said, ‘Well, I considered writing a popular version that people might understand, but’, and I am quoting Newton here, ‘To avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematics,’ that was his phrase “little smatterers,” he intentionally wrote a book in dense scholarly Latin with lots of maths so that only scholars could follow. In other words, Isaac Newton didn’t care to be understood by average folks. But here is the argument I wanna make to you guys this morning. And you’re not gonna hear this advice often, I suggest you may never hear it again. When asked about your work, do not do what Isaac Newton did. No, no, no.

When a cousin or an uncle or a buddy comes up and asks you, “So what are you working on?”, even if it’s hard to explain, even if you know they don’t really wanna hear it, not really, I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists, because science stories, you know this, have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories, bible stories, movie stories, myths can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists, this is not a gentle competition. So you’ve got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.

You know, you know that when you receive your degree today, you are part of and you’re celebrating something very rare, and very precious, and very fragile in our world. This place celebrates freedom and because you are now free men and women, you have to protect what you’ve been given by helping others who haven’t been here, who are never coming here to understand the value of what you do and what your teachers do, and what their predecessors have done, which is why an hour or so from now when your brother, or your aunt or your mom asks you ‘So what have you been up to while you’ve been here?’, take a chance, find the words, find the metaphor, share the beauty, and tell them what’s on your mind. Tell them a story.

Every engineer, scientists, mathematician, or anyone else with a Bachelors (or Masters, or Doctorate) of Science degree should listen to his speech, which I’ve included below. However, I’d also encourage you listen to it even if you’re not in the above category.

  1. http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/553-if-the-freakonomics-guys-and-malcolm-gladwell-hosted-this-american-life