Using Storytelling to Connect People with Complex Topics

November 2015
Nahum Gershon
Nahum Gershon

Analyst. Storyteller. Innovator. Connection builder. Those are just a few facets of Dr. Nahum Gershon, whose expertise and outreach activities extend across MITRE, our sponsors, and international boundaries.

His "day job" involves data and information organization and visualization, with a specialty in analyzing medical, environmental, and other multi-dimensional data. But his true gift lies in using storytelling to help convey his results—and teaching others how to do the same.

A Story Well Told Tells a Thousand Pictures

Children's tales, a TED talk, and a classic movie. These are among the many brushes Gershon uses to paint his picture of how MITRE employees can weave stories and storytelling elements into their talks and briefings. With more tools, our staff can better connect and convey information to our government sponsors and other audiences.

Putting his own twist on the expression, "a picture is worth a thousand words," Gershon says, "A story well told is worth a thousand pictures. Every time you have a piece of information and you want to present it, think about the best way to present it. Sometimes it's words. Sometimes it's pictures. Sometimes it's both pictures and words.

"There's more of a chance your audience will listen to you if you use storytelling. And the same thing may apply to presentations. If you only have bullets, bullets, bullets, and direct messages, maybe indirect messages could do a better job. When audience members have to use their brains to decipher what you're telling them, it's more likely they will feel they're part of the presentation."

Applying Visualization, Storytelling, Social Media, and Global Reach

A native of Israel, Gershon has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. He joined MITRE in 1988 after working at the National Institutes of Health, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University.

One of his first projects at MITRE centered on visually merging information generated at NIH on the structure and functions of the brain. Gershon next evolved a methodology for applying information visualization techniques to NASA's databases and structuring them to best make sense of the data.

Starting in 1995 and over the next dozen years, he applied his expertise in visualization and storytelling on behalf of the defense community and the Department of Homeland Security. As he describes it: "They had results. I helped them use visualization techniques and storytelling to communicate results."

He turned his attention to social media and community engagement in 2008, developing his take on "how to win friends and influence people in the social media era" for the Department of Defense. And here's another example of his cross-domain and cross-sponsor expertise and activities: He co-authored the white paper Megachange, which recommends to federal leaders in the field of healthcare how to use the Megachange Profiler tool to adopt appropriate strategies for managing complex initiatives.

Gershon has cast his net even wider by authoring numerous other papers and publications, organizing international conferences, and being very active in international professional communities.

Connecting and Building Communities

Actually, saying he's "very active" in professional communities doesn't do him justice. Gershon served as a member of the Advisory Panel of the Earth Observing System Data and Information System, the U.S. National Research Council’s CODATA National Committee, and a member-at-large of the NATO Panel on Human Factors and Medicine. He was also a member of the focus group on visualization and presentation for the White House's GLOBE Program, an international science and education initiative.

He has played major roles in the IEEE, including co-chairing the society's Visualization Conferences, co-organizing its Information Visualization Symposia, and currently co-chairing the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society’s Games, Entertainment, and Media Conference (IEEE GEM 2015). As part of this role, he also serves as a steering committee member for IEEE's Life Sciences Technical Community.

Besides representing MITRE across the globe and through his work, Gershon also coordinates two popular series that bring thought-provoking speakers to the company and its sponsors. Among recent guests were experts in groundbreaking areas such as Martin Cooper (regarded as “the father of the cell phone”), Greg Toth on the "Internet of Things," "e-Patient Dave" deBronkart on medical patient empowerment, and Joichi Ito on innovations emerging from the MIT Media Lab.

It's all part of his natural ability to communicate complex ideas to those around him. "I go to conferences, am active in social media, connect with people, and then connect them with MITRE and its sponsors," he says.

—by Jim Chido

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