Storytelling in Science: Why it matters and how to improve your skills

Wednesday, November 16, 2022 Tips and Tricks

Matthieu Chartier, PhD.
Matthieu Chartier, PhD.

Founder @ Fourwaves

A speaker telling a story at a conference
Storytelling is a powerful technique that can be used when speaking at a scientific conference.

Stories are powerful.

Humans have been telling stories in all their forms for thousands of years: murals on the walls of caves, wisdom passed down around campfires, or tales of heroic deeds woven into song and dance.

In more recent years, the intentional use of storytelling in science has emerged and impacted our world in positive ways.

Riding on the wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, some researchers saw an opportunity to expose racial bias in North American healthcare systems. They presented their findings alongside real stories to help people understand the connections between data points and peoples lives. With interest sparked, the public began sharing studies on decision-making algorithms in US hospitals and articles on the history and implications of the use of race in clinical diagnosis

Weaving important information into socially relevant stories helped researchers share their findings on racial bias with a wider audience. In turn, the increased awareness is beginning to have an impact on the way healthcare systems are structured and the methods that are used to train new medical professionals.

Stories like this illustrate just one of the many ways that scientific storytelling can affect positive change. So, as a researcher (or anyone in the scientific community), it’s important to continuously improve your storytelling skills. You never know when the next opportunity might arise.

Why is storytelling an important skill for scientists to learn?

In research situations where the stakes are high, getting the right story out to the public at the right time can change the future of our planet. Whether it’s panels on communication to motivate climate action or studies on the impact of conspiracy theories during the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists across the globe are talking about the need for effective and ethical science communication. 

In addition to encouraging climate action and fighting misinformation, using stories to communicate scientific findings is valuable for many reasons. In general, it can help to:

  • Translate complex, sometimes abstract, scientific problems into simpler formats
  • Catch and hold the interest of an intended audience
  • Help people remember the information we share with them
  • Make science accessible to the general public
  • Get future generations excited about science at an early age

Last, but not least, using storytelling in science can be just the kick a researcher needs to start thinking outside of the box. 

In scenarios where it’s appropriate, crafting a story allows us to break free from the often rigid tone of scientific communications. It helps our brains hit the refresh button and observe our findings from a new perspective, which is a valuable exercise for any researcher. Plus, it can be a lot of fun to do!

What makes a story great?

If you asked a bunch of people to tell you the name of their favorite story, you likely wouldn’t get the same answer twice. However, if you asked them WHY that was their favorite story, you’d start to see some patterns emerge.

Great stories tend to have a few things in common:

  1. An effective set-up/introduction. One of the most important parts of a story is how it begins. A good start hooks the audience's attention. Setting the tone and providing any relevant, known details upfront then gives them an idea of what to expect from the story.
  2. A well-paced narrative arc. This means that the story follows a logical pattern at a rate that the audience can keep up with. Imagining a story’s progression as a narrative arc helps to visualize the idea that every story has “a relatively calm beginning, a middle where tension, character conflict, and narrative momentum builds to a peak, and an end where the conflict is resolved.”
  3. Relatable characters. People relate to characters that have views and values that align with their own. Similarly, seeing characters go through relatable struggles can help people connect with a story and understand how to apply its lessons in their own lives.
  4. An unexpected twist (or a mystery to be solved). Surprising the audience or getting them involved in an “investigation” is an effective way to hold attention and make a story memorable. It builds tension and increases the stakes for the characters.
  5. A satisfying conclusion. At the end of a story, when the plot gets resolved, something should have changed and the audience should fully understand the reasons for this change. If the storyteller plays their cards right, this is where they can make the biggest impact by emphasizing the lessons to be learned from the story. 

Listening to someone talk passionately about why they love their favorite stories gives us one more clue into the final common trait that all great stories possess: They make us pay attention and pause to think. This quote from the Journal of Science Communication sums it up perfectly:

“In short, [the soul of science communication] is about making people care. That is why we need to go beyond presenting facts and evidence, towards creating emotional connections between scientists and publics.”

With the above quote in mind, it’s important to note that the success of any story often depends on how well the storyteller caters to their audience and the environment around them.

In scientific communications, storytelling opportunities range from more formal (i.e. writing research papers) to less formal (i.e. scientific conference presentations, public speaking events, or networking opportunities). So, when you’re crafting a new science story, you’ll need to assess the environment to understand the level of emotional appeal that is appropriate in each scenario. 

Tips to improve your scientific storytelling skills

While we’ve established the importance of storytelling in science, it can sometimes be difficult to get started developing that skillset. Whether you’re preparing for a conference presentation, making an informational video, or writing any other science story, here are a few simple tips to help you improve your storytelling skills…

1) Start by developing an “elevator pitch”

In business communication and entrepreneurship, an elevator pitch is a storytelling tactic that emphasizes the importance of getting across your key points (and why people should care about them) in a short period of time. The general rule is to keep it between 30-60 seconds. 

This tactic can also be applied to scientific storytelling.

There may be moments where someone asks you to summarize your research or findings for them. Having an elevator pitch prepared ensures you don’t miss a beat (or any important information) in your response. It also helps you to frame your story and why it’s important before you start expanding on it for other storytelling scenarios. 

As a bonus, a scientific elevator pitch can really come in handy at networking events.

2) Think about how you want your audience to feel 

Tone is an important part of any story. Managing it is your job as the storyteller. So, think about how you want your audience to feel during (and after) your story. Different tones may be necessary for different audiences and scenarios. Be sure to adjust accordingly.

It’s also important to remember that you want your audience to connect with the story. Think about how you can make them feel like the main character (or at least like they understand the main character). What are your audiences’ goals and desires at the start of this story? And how can you appeal to those or influence them to change? Weave these points into the plot of your story.

3) Give people something to look at

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is famous for a reason. Engaging multiple senses can help people remember things better. In particular, sight seems to be a powerful sense related to memory

So, use visuals or illustrations to tell your story. Images break up the monotony of text-filled slides or endless audio and, when relaying complex concepts, they can help your audience grasp things quicker. 

4) Be clear about why people should care

Creative writers love to bury their themes and lessons under layers of metaphors and symbolism. You should avoid that at all costs in science communication. If your audience starts feeling confused, you risk losing their interest. Your message needs to be clear as day.

Illustrate your points with practical examples where possible, and only turn to analogies or comparisons when real stories can’t be used.

Tell your audience why you’re doing what you're doing, who is involved in the science, and how the results were obtained. Wrap it up by emphasizing exactly why that should matter to them (i.e. What will they get out of it? What are the wider benefits to their community?).

5) Don’t get bogged down in the details

When you know a lot about a topic, it can be hard to understand how to simplify it for someone who knows very little. But remember, scientific storytelling is about capturing people’s interest so that they want to learn more. That means you don’t have to fit every detail on a topic into one story. 

Scientific storytelling doesn’t require you to thoroughly explain each new concept you introduce (all you need to do is explain it enough that people understand why that concept is important to the overall plot of the story). For a bit of extra help with this, Cartoonbase has a handy style guide on how to simplify your science stories.

6) Test your stories on a non-scientist

On a similar note to the point above, it’s worth getting a trusted outsider to help you test out your story before you release it to the public. Find someone that has the same level of knowledge as your intended audience. 

Get help identifying spots where you use technical terms or jargon, and work to find plain-English equivalents that still get the correct message across. If you can’t find an alternative term for something, that might be a case where a definition or explanation is needed the first time you use the technical term.

7) Learn from those who have gone before

In addition to this article, there are plenty of great resources out there to help you continue building your storytelling skills. So, don’t be afraid to take a page out of someone else’s book. 

In this writing module, Chris Greyson-Gaito describes the ABT (And, But, Therefore) method for storytelling in scientific research papers. He also outlines how to use storyboards to help you start framing a new science story.

In this blog article, Cartoonbase offers helpful advice on using visuals in scientific storytelling. They also include a useful style guide and some other tips.

In this comprehensive guide, Hubspot covers all the basics of how to tell a great story. It doesn’t focus on scientific storytelling, but a lot of the advice applies on a broad spectrum.

The future of storytelling in science: Walking the tightrope between entertainment and ethics

Some people have highlighted concerns that asking scientists to prioritize storytelling could lead to ethical dilemmas in the research process. It might even lead researchers to focus on topics that are more likely to result in an entertaining story. 

In addition, nearly all scientific experiments can be interpreted in multiple ways. But, unethical storytelling can guide an audience to blindly believe in a single narrative or interpretation.

One potential solution to this dilemma can be found in a developing industry: public science communications. The key to the future of ethical science communication could lie in regulating clear boundaries between the roles of public science communication practitioners and the roles of researchers and scholars. This could be supported by creating cooperation pathways between both groups for information exchange and feedback.

The idea of pursuing a career in science communications is only just starting to gain popularity. So, while this industry continues to develop, the responsibility of storytelling in science will continue to fall primarily to the researchers themselves.

Regardless of what the future holds, scientific communicators should be diligent that the thrill of weaving an entertaining story doesn’t cloud their ability to assess their personal bias. 

The responsibility to communicate scientific findings to a wider audience is not one to be taken lightly. So, it’s important that we continue to support the development of ethical storytelling skills in scholars and researchers. Because, when a story is told well, it has the power to change the world.

Next up in Tips and Tricks
How to Write a Convincing Letter of Support for Grant
Matthieu Chartier, PhD. Matthieu Chartier, PhD.
A well-written letter of support goes a long way toward convincing funding agencies that a research proposal is worth taking a chance on. Applying f...
What to Wear to a Scientific Conference
Matthieu Chartier, PhD. Matthieu Chartier, PhD.
Presenting new work, learning about new ideas, and making important collaborations are exciting parts of scientific conferences. While academics care...