Storytelling in Science

Note: The feature image for this post is from Green et al. 2018. FACETS Journal, under a CC-BY-4.0 license.

A few weeks ago I talked about how we should communicate science communication to scientists using scientific approaches. As an example, the next week I featured a paper that outlined what kind of “reach” scientists had when using Twitter. Using a series of statistical techniques, the authors discovered that there were particular follower number thresholds, beyond which scientists started to reach a more diverse audience than just other scientists, and actually began to engage policy makers.

This week I want to talk about storytelling in science.

Scientists often see “storytelling” as a four-letter-word, because they’re not in the business of telling stories – they are writing serious scientific manuscripts. This is true, but it’s also true that those manuscripts tell a story – albeit one in scientific jargon and often passive voice. You have the key problem you want to solve, the methods you used to address that problem, the results you got and what that means for the problem in the bigger picture – either in the research literature or as a series of other research problems you’re working on.

In a 2018 paper in FACETS journal, Stephanie J. Green, Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, and Heather Mannix outline the process of getting scientists to tell research stories, starting with an intensive two-day workshop that ends with them telling their stories to an audience.

The authors note that science storytelling is part of scientists’ social contract with society – if we want the public to understand what we do, we have to talk about it in an engaging way that leaves them on the edge of their seats, not snoring away at the back of the room. Many researchers also do science that affects the public, which makes it even more imperative to tell those research stories.

Green et al. describe how storytelling can bring the vividness back to science, which is often focused on “disinterestedness.” As they say, “the language of science is useful for talking to people who speak the same dialect: other scientists.” After three years of training scientists in storytelling, they have concluded that scientists can definitely learn storytelling techniques and apply them when interacting with the public.

They identify three story arcs that engage listeners, all of which include the following:

“(1) the fortunes of the main character change as the result of a major problem they face and (2) the story nearly always ends with a resolution to the problem—typically resulting in good fortune for the main character. If there is no change in fortune—no drama—then it is not a story.”

These three story arcs include the discovery, rescue, and mystery arcs.

The discovery arc is

“at the very essence of science—and also good stories. As scientists our method revolves around asking questions and discovering answers. The process leading up to that discovery is key. Often in stories of science discovery, scientists are the central characters. The listener invests in our well-being as we take them on a journey through the successes and failures of our experiments, analyses, or field experiences.”

The rescue arc focuses on problem-solving research that has the potential to rescue or restore,

“whether it’s finding a more efficient way to grow crops, developing genetic barcoding that prevents mislabeling and food piracy, or discovering a way to protect aquaculture from the effects of an acidifying ocean.”

The mystery arc follows the role of scientists who often play the role of “detective.”

“We carefully test alternative hypotheses and follow leads to discover why a phenomenon has transpired. We can’t be certain of what we will find. A mystery is different from a discovery or rescue paradigm because the story begins in a different point of the character’s fortune. In a mystery, we step into the story at a low point, where an event of unknown origin or cause has transpired, creating ill fortune for the main character.”

The authors acknowledge that turning scientists into storytellers is difficult and requires a lot of training, but that it can be done if they’re able to answer the following questions:

“Who are the key characters that I work with? Am I the main character? What problems do they/I face in the course of this work? What is at risk if these challenges are not overcome? How is the problem resolved?”

The authors also note the importance of tools like the Compass Message Box, which encourages users to hone in on their take-home message before they start to write their story. They also suggest that scientists use vivid language, remember the shape, scale, and timing of your story, and get feedback on your work so you can polish it for presentation.  

The article is full of other great tips and tools for getting into science storytelling and improving your storytelling skills. It shows that storytelling can be a useful skill for scientists to add to their science communication toolbox, as it’s an excellent way to engage the public.

What are your thoughts on scientists telling stories? Leave your notes in the comments!

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