Telling stories for science

There’s lots of advice in Randy Olson’s book about how scientists can communicate better. One point: scientists need to be better storytellers.

Scientists can be poor communicators. Other scientists are excellent. What causes this difference? Two experts in different aspects of communication have recently told me that they know. And I think they might be correct. Scientists need to listen to this advice, so with the zeal of a convert, here it is…

The most recent advice about science communication was from John Brumby, the former Premier and Treasurer of Victoria. All politicians know a thing or two about communication, and political leaders probably know more than most.

Addressing our Graduate Seminar class, John Brumby noted that scientists need to tell a story when interacting with politicians. They need to use a narrative that is engaging and compelling; the facts won’t speak for themselves. The message needs to be clear, not clouded in unnecessary obscurity.

John Brumby’s advice reflected that of his former colleague John Thwaites, who, on opening the previous incarnation of our research centre (AEDA), noted that scientists needed to send their best communicator to talk with politicians, not their best scientist. The combined advice of these two senior former politicians is:

Tell an interesting story with clear messages;
Judge the timing in the budget cycle and tenure of government (don’t make your case after the decision has been made);
Know the stakeholders who need to be consulted; and
Be honest and accurate about the costs, impacts and benefits.

A few weeks earlier at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, Randy Olson told his audience “Don’t Be Such a Scientist”. His message: scientists need to tell stories better. And he has some credibility to discuss this. Randy Olson worked previously as a marine biologist (PhD from Harvard and a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire), before quitting academia. He took up acting classes and film school, and now writes and directs films in Hollywood. So he knows about both being a scientist and how to tell a story. Check out his book.

So, scientists need to tell stories better. This is not easy. I’m sure it takes practice, and it might not be something that comes naturally to many scientists. It is not a case of embellishing the facts, or sensationalizing matters. It is a case of finding a way to make the facts more engaging.

But before I finish, I just came across this session at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Again, people (including Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty) are saying that science communication is about telling stories.

It is a pity I missed this session. But let me see – a Nobel Laureate, a Hollywood writer and director, a former state premier, and many others are all saying scientists should use stories to communicate their science better. Are we going to listen? Are we going to learn?

Have I learned anything? Compare the above post to the one below, which was my first draft. Which do you think is better? How could they be improved? Have I used a story effectively?
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The first draft

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve twice heard convincing accounts about how scientists need to be better story tellers if they want to communicate the importance of their science.

The most recent was during a visit from John Brumby, the former Premier and Treasurer of Victoria. Addressing our Graduate Seminar class, he noted that scientists need to tell a story when interacting with politicians. They need to use a narrative that is engaging and compelling; the facts won’t speak for themselves. The message needs to be clear, not clouded in unnecessary obscurity. This reflected similar advice from his former colleague John Thwaites on opening the previous incarnation of our research centre (AEDA); he noted that scientists needed to send their best communicator to talk with politicians, not their best scientist. The combined advice of these two senior former politicians is:

Communicate well;
Judge the timing in the budget cycle and tenure of government (don’t make your case after the decision has been made);
Know the stakeholders who need to be consulted;
Be honest and accurate about the costs;

The other occasion was at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland where Randy Olson told us all “Don’t Be Such a Scientist”. The theme of his talk was that scientists needed to be better at telling a story. And he has some credibility to discuss this. He worked previously as a marine biologist (PhD from Harvard and a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire), before quitting academia, taking up acting classes and film school, and writing and directing films in Hollywood. So he knows about both being a scientist and how to tell a story. Check out his book.

But this has convinced me. Scientists need to tell stories better. And this needs the same treatment.

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About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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5 Responses to Telling stories for science

  1. Pingback: Writing, writing, writing, … | Michael McCarthy's Teaching

  2. Here’s a new post where Virginia Hughes and others urge scientists to be better story tellers (www.lastwordonnothing.com/2012/10/01/why-more-scientists-should-tell-stories). There are some examples and advice about how to do it; the story should have a beginning, middle and an end; and the story should describe why it matters and how it changed them.

  3. Michael Bode says:

    Hi Mick,
    I once read an interview with Ben Goldacre (from the Guardian’s “Bad Science” column) who made an interesting qualifier to this issue. Scientists, he said, definitely need to communicate better. However, we need to be careful of arguments that lose the essential scientific element of a study. Even if we have to stop being such scientists, we can’t stop being scientists.

    Science communication is difficult partly because science asks us to rely on data and synthesis, when our natural cognitive predisposition is to draw conclusions from anecdote. So the difficult trick is to effectively communicate scientific conclusions and scientific process without using non-scientific short-cuts. And that’s almost impossible because the scientific process is, at its implementation, fundamentally statistical. Yet statistics are not compelling. As Stalin purportedly said: “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”

    So that makes me wonder – a scientific story that starts with an anecdote – a named individual who has just experienced a miraculous cure, the last Norfolk Island Owl, a colourful ant-mimic – aren’t really scientific anecdotes. If you use them to tell a scientific story – a new drug, the sixth extinction, evolutionary dynamics – are you still talking about science?

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the comment.

      For sure, I think it is hard to make sure the science is communicated, rather than just some fuzzy story. Randy Olson gave a nice example in his talk. He saw a video where scientists we retrieving a year or two of data. It was possible that the retrieval would fail, and all that important information would disappear. The video narrative was:

      1) It’s possible we won’t retrieve these data.
      2) Oh, yes, here are the data.
      3) This is what the data tell us (the science story).

      He suggested the following structure would be more compelling:

      1) It’s possible we won’t retrieve these data.
      2) This is why it is so important to get these data. This is what the data will tell us (the science story).
      2) Hooray, here are the data!

      The story is switched around in the second version. There is an element of suspense.

      Of course, maybe people will remember the suspense of retrieving the data, rather than what those data say, or even why those data are important…

      Mick

  4. Pingback: Using stories to communicate science | Michael McCarthy's Teaching

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