Storytelling in science

A few weeks ago I attended a one-day workshop on 'Storytelling in science communication' by Australian Science Communicators. I found the workshop so valuable because it emphasised that for truely captivating communication you need to use the elements of storytelling, things like the unexpected, emotion and humour, which are often actively avoided in science.

The workshop started with Dr Kristin Alford (Director of SciCEd) who spoke about the importance of using emotion to engage people in science. I took away from this that as a communicator you should ask yourself the question 'how do I want to make my audience feel?' rather than 'what do I want them to learn?'. Then, a panel of science communicators were featured for a Q & A session. Among the panel was Dr Tullio Rossi, who recently graduated and created this short animation to communicate his PhD findings in a way that would be both easy to understand and inspire action.

The animation features a simple technique that every story needs called 'And, but, therefore'. Randy Olson explains this technique in a TEDMED talk and goes on to say that scientists tend to get stuck in an exposition mode of 'And, And, And' which makes for some incredibly boring content. Although I don't think it's as bad as that (at least not in biology), many scientists would clearly benefit from incorporating this technique. I've also heard it referred to as 'The elevator pitch' which is explored in this post by the Thesis Whisperer. Last week I attended a webinar run by the author behind this blog, Dr Inger Mewburn, on 'How to win the three-minute thesis' which outlined ideas along a similar vein.

The absolute highlight of the conference for me was listening to Karl Telfer, a Kaurna leader and cultural bearer, speak about multiple ways of knowing. Karl described the way that he was taught Kaurna languages: through touching, seeing and hearing as he walked through the bush. I see a parallel between this way of knowing and my own passion for science, which didn't come from textbooks or the classroom but through walking in the bush. Even now, it's going into the field to catch sea snakes from the deck of a boat, counting and scrutinising minute scales that line the lips and eyes and forehead of a wiggling snake to decide its scientific name, that is what motivates me to be a researcher, the way it connects me to all other living things. It's being out in the field, on a boat, in the middle of the night, that makes me feel most at ease with the world, and my place in it.

 Catching a baby sea snake ( Hydrophis stokesii ) off the coast of Broome in Western Australia.

Catching a baby sea snake (Hydrophis stokesii) off the coast of Broome in Western Australia.

The day finished with a writing workshop by David Chapple (SA Writers Center) that explored voice, narrative structure and metaphor in fiction stories. I found these exercises so fun because they freed my writing of the usual rigidity that scientific articles demand. Here's an excerpt of my short story that started with simple formula of 'character + motivation + obstacle = outcome' that grew into a story simply by adding 'because':

There is a penguin who wants to fly because his watery home is uninhabitable because of climate change, but he can’t fly because billions of years of evolution have left his wings shrivelled and body heavy

Despite the rather bleak nature of that piece of writing, the workshop was actually fantastic! And ultimately had a message of hope that through effective science communication we can foster connections and inspire conservation.

Find out more about Australian Science Communicators and upcoming workshops here.