The case for narrative: why scientists need to tell a better story

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper outlined 9 ways in which scientists demonstrate  they don’t understand journalism. Judging from the number of re-tweets it received – 581 at my last count  – it struck a chord with many readers.

Scientists and journalists are often at loggerheads because their respective professions emphasise completely different skill sets. Scientists stress the importance of facts by amassing large amounts of evidence with which to support (or not) theories via painstaking experiment and replication. This is an anathema to the journalist who prefers the big picture, generalisations, snappy quotes, one or two facts, anecdotes and emotion.

As media trainers we  know that scientists care if their work is misunderstood by journalists (and the wider public) because we often come across talented people who claim all their problems would be solved if the public only understood ‘the facts’.   But the longevity of scare stories such as MMR and GM, combined with a massive drop in the number of European students choosing to study science, suggest that there is clearly something wrong with this approach in its current form.

We work with many different types of scientist  and the constant challenge is that ‘scientific fact’ is almost always communicated in a form that fails to connect with non-specialist audiences. Findings are often presented in chronological data sets which are often divorced from context or wider social impact.  Furthermore, results are often not clear cut, making them unpalatable to a hype-obsessed media and a scientifically illiterate public in possession of some contradictory views about what it means to accept ‘risk’ in their daily lives.

A group of African Americans with high blood pressure were able to control their condition better after hearing stories from fellow sufferers

Let’s be clear – of course facts are important for communication because they provide objective evidence and back up to any argument.  But there is a growing body of literature (think Chip and Dan Heath, Daniel Pink or Peter Guber) which suggests that storytelling is a powerful tool not only for making core messages memorable but also for persuading people to do things that scientific data alone can’t.  And by storytelling, I really do mean a narrative sequence of events with a clear beginning, middle and end.

A recent study monitored a group of African-Americans with high blood pressure who, as part of their treatment, listened to or watched stories of others with similar problems. After hearing how the characters in the stories were able to control their blood pressure through simple methods like being careful about their diet and taking exercise, they were able to control their illness as effectively as another group taking extra drugs for the condition.

Obviously this is just one case where a story may have been instrumental in changing the way patients responded to ‘treatment’ and changed their behaviour. But there are countless other ways – such as communicating the progress of trials or dispelling scares – where storytelling could be the scientist’s most powerful tool for persuading others of the realities behind an issue.

The world of science is full of incredible tales. But all too often they are buried because they are deemed ‘unscientific’.  Our prescription for better communication of science is first recognise that communicating with a general audience requires very different skills to writing an academic paper. Second, nurture and recognise the good communicators in your team or discipline (we find they are often persuaded to communicate less effectively by group pressure), and third, if its really important and you have the funds, hire people like us who can help you find and craft the stories that will make your data convincing.

Science is a human enterprise – and scientists could benefit hugely by remembering this when they need to communicate with the rest of us.

Laura Shields has been working with Robert Matthews, a science journalist, to develop media training workshops that help scientists of any persuasion to communicate powerfully and accurately, while also challenging opposition spin.

2 Responses to The case for narrative: why scientists need to tell a better story

  1. Sue halliday says:

    totally agree with telling real stories – this is something I have been doing for years and actually created a specific space for telling science stories at Catalyst science centre Widnes.
    As a processional science presenter delivering shows to schools and the public I know that a show will not come together in the development stage unless it has a strong narrative thread – somewhere to take the audience. Yes the facts are important of course but if your listener has turned off because they have lost the thread your facts are wasted.
    Stories ( or a definite narrative) work for all ages and a good science communicator can make even complex subjects accessible through a well told tale

    • admin says:

      Hi Sue,
      Thanks for your comments and I am pleased to be in touch with a fellow storytelling evangelist. We often work with scientists who have remarkable stories but discount them as irrelevant, or soft (that’s if they even consider them in the first place). To be fair – many people don’t consider storytelling when it comes to their public communication. But I find (and am sure you do to) that it’s the nuggets or real life stuff that people think is uninteresting that is actually the most compelling and memorable after the event.

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