This blog post is reposted with permission from Roger Aines and Amy L. Aines, authors of Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers. You can see Roger at the American Geophysical Union from December 10-14 in Washington, D.C.


We’ve all heard that humans absorb information quickly when it is in the form of a story. But what does storytelling mean for a scientist? It’s not telling ghost stories around the campfire – it’s engaging your audience’s previous experience in ways that help them follow a complicated set of details. Here are some example story lines that you can use to frame your work so that listeners quickly get your point.

The Predicted Outcome

Audiences love this story – a predicted result, that avoided experimental verification for years, and finally yielded to the efforts of a dedicated team of researchers. Always set the scene with a short description of why the prediction was made. Fit it into broad scientific frameworks. Follow up with why it was hard to observe, and what you and your team did to finally get to the prize. Now that you got there, what does that expose for the future?

Serendipity

We’ve all played a part in this story, so we see ourselves in your story. And that is the key to good storytelling – engaging the past experience of the listeners to shorten the amount of information you have to provide. All scientists have worked on a hard problem, suddenly to see that there is an easier way, or an application for your result that is much more impactful. We kick ourselves for not realizing it sooner. When you say, “And suddenly I realized that I had been staring at the result I needed without recognizing it,” everyone in the audience shares your joy. It’s like getting a present you never expected, and we all love it.

The Struggle and Warning

This is an unfortunately common story. You worked hard, but the result just didn’t come. Again, we have all experienced that. Be honest. “I was disappointed that the prediction could not be matched.”  So how do you make that a good story? Share a little of your pain, but mostly, share what you really learned. “We thought this experimental method would work, but it turns out to have a fatal flaw.” This is the most important story of human history – things the audience should avoid if they want to have a good life. Or a good science outcome.

The Hero’s Journey

The most famous of all story frameworks, The Hero’s Journey is the basis of most Hollywood blockbusters. The protagonist struggles to overcome her adversaries and her own shortcomings, to fight her way through to an amazing outcome. The world is made a better place, and the hero’s experiences, friends, and mentors are all seen to have clarified her path and strengthened her resolve.

This is the best, and hardest, story for any scientist to tell. Because the hero of your story is you. If you have trouble saying, “I saw this problem, and I pursued this path.” then go ahead and say, “My team” or “Me and my collaborators”. But don’t default to passive voice – the amazing outcome did not appear magically (“The result finally was obtained.”). You did it, and your audience is glad you did. Humility is important, but did you ever think that Luke Skywalker was gloating? No, and in your science talk, rather than trying to explicitly include everyone in the success, stick to the things you did, and why you did them. If you say, “I realized this was the answer,” your audience will not think badly of you. Nor will they be hung up trying to understand where you fit in your field. They can focus on your work.

Telling stories is the oldest form of information sharing: story form makes it easy to remember and understand.
Today’s stories are often told in a lecture, but the structure of a good story is still as easy to understand here as around a fire.
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