Stories are the best vehicle for communicating your work, if only you can find them.
Everyone loves a good story, so why do so many scientists shy away from story-telling when discussing their work? Part of the problem could be that we think of stories as fiction, and story-telling as the art of drawing people into a fictional reality. Not true. “The story is a vehicle for a message,” said Brian Lin, Senior Media Relations Specialist at the University of British Colombia, and communications strategist Andy Torr, speaking to a packed audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week. “Brains are hardwired for stories. They are constantly asking these three questions: what do I need to know, how do I feel about that, and what do I do now?”
Working your audience
For many scientists, communicating their research involves passing a research paper to an institution’s communications office and hoping for the best. But that’s not good enough, said Lin and Torr. If you want people to engage with your science, you need to be asking yourself some important questions.
For a start, you need to find out what your story is (more on how to do that later) but even before you can do that you need to think about who your audience is. To get your message out to as many people as possible, you should also be asking yourself what your audience can do for you.
Who are the stakeholders who are interested in your research and how can you make them pass the message on more widely? This slide summarises some of the potential audiences scientists are likely to work with, beyond just the mainstream media. Think about how you can engage your audience in a way that’s meaningful to them with your work so they pass the message on.
What’s your story?
Once you know who your audience is, you need to think about the story. Who are the characters? Where is the emotion? “To a non-scientist, facts are not enough to persuade. You need an emotional connection too,” say Lin and Torr. “This is where the story comes in. It is a vehicle for conveying a message and it evokes a visceral reaction. That’s why culture was passed down through stories.”
Conveying a sense of emotion in your story does not mean you have to lose control either, they say. “You don’t have to get emotional as a scientist to convey emotion. But before you even open your mouth think about who your audience is. What do you want them to think about? What do you want them to feel?”
Another thing to consider is that the story isn’t necessarily going to be the results of your research. Research projects take many years, with milestones along the way. Use these to consider whether there is a story at each step. Did something happen to make you change the direction of your research? Did something unexpected come out of it? What about the methods you are using – is there any adventure there, expeditions, tension, conflict? Where is the human interest in all this? Are there any cool details? “You have to capture and relate to people and when all you provide is ‘I got published’ or ‘I got loads of money’, you’re not getting me,” says Torr.
It’s also worth considering that eight out of 10 of the top science stories ran by CNN last year are about space exploration, which is about finding out about what’s out there to make sense of our own existence. “That’s what science is about. It’s an emotional need as well as a rational one,” the speakers say.
Don’t explain. Persuade.
To get the balance right between emotion and fact, consider Aristotle’s view of persuasion which, broadly speaking, states that there are three types of argument: credibility, logical appeal, and emotional appeal. Go too far in one direction for one audience, you loose the other elements. And ultimately, communicating your work is not about explaining it to people, it’s about persuading them – so finding that balance is vital.
Five step help-test
So, how do you do it? Torr and Lin suggest a five-step help test for finding your story. Ask yourself:
- Is it significant? If so, in what context – it is significant in your lab? In your university? Your country? The whole world? Answer that, then frame the story in a way that’s appropriate. Can it be described by an ‘est’ word – is it the fastest, oldest, newest?
- Is it timely?
- Is it emotional? “Emotions is not a dirty word. It’s the bridge between you and your audience,” say Torr and Lin. Ask yourself: how do you feel about it? “Science is about people doing stuff- it’s not about the stuff itself.”
- Does my audience need to know this part piece of information? What would they rather know? Choose what you communicate to your audience. You need to leave some things out- don’t tell them your whole methodology.
- Is it visual? Can you see it, touch it, smell it, taste it? How do you relate to your audience so they really understand it the science?
Practice makes perfect
There are also some things you can do to make this process easier, say Torr and Lin.
- Read more stories. Study the art and science of storytelling. Pull them apart. You’re not going to be good at telling your story if you don’t.
- Practice framing your research for different stakeholders.
- Remain alert while you are working. Did an event precipitate your interest in something? Was there an unanticipated use or application? Did you break your leg on the ice field in Greenland? Stay alert for nuggets that could become a great story.