Is storytelling the antidote to hyperbole in scicomm?

2018-12-17

Many years ago, a friend told me that I should use story telling in science communication, I rolled my eyes. This reaction is so common that it’s a cliché, but now I’ve more than come around to the idea of using stories in scicomm, in fact I think it’s essential. When you look at the science communication landscape today, there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work.

Unfortunately, it feels like they are being drowned out by a sea of pithy, hyperbolic headlines that we are led to believe are the only way to capture people’s attention. The headline culture which has been made worse by clickbait on websites and social media has caused a rapid escalation in the types of extreme claims you have to make to get your message seen. Now only the most extreme headlines will be published in order to get those much-needed clicks.

This is where story telling comes in. A good story doesn’t need a hyperbolic claim to captivate people. We love stories and we have done throughout human history. Can we use that in science? I wasn’t sure until I was inspired by YouTube sensation Casey Neistat. He started a daily vlog in 2015 which he continued for years and amassed a following of over 10 million people. How did he do it? He is a master storyteller. He is able to take everyday events in his life and weave them into a simple yet compelling story. If you don’t believe me take a look at episode one of his vlog.

I use this in my workshops all the time. The question I ask after people watch it is, what happened? The answer is normally a little confusion, followed by a smirk and the inevitable realisation that nothing happened in the video and yet, people were hooked. He didn’t do anything out of the ordinary but using story telling techniques, he was able to take us briskly through his day in six minutes. If you believe the headline writers and marketers, we have less than a millisecond to capture people’s attention, and yet here we have over 10 million people regularly showing up to watch what happens in the life of a good story teller, every single day.

This is powerful, and it gives me a lot of hope. If storytelling can be used to make everyday life seem extraordinary, imagine what it can do in science. I may be a little biased here, but science is objectively cool. We have lab equipment, drama, international travel and some of the craziest personalities you’ll ever meet. When you add all these elements to a publication you get wonderfully deep source of information that can be used as a story to deliver scientific results.

I think the best way that I’ve seen this depicted is with this cartoon from @RedPenBlackPen.

We know this is what science is like and yet, to keep up appearances, we only every communicate the tip of the iceberg. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, this would be like just telling people what happened at the end. That’s boring, we want the journey, we want the struggle we want the fun, and we want the drama.

Using storytelling and exposing the behind the scenes has to be a better alternative to producing yet another hyperbolic headline that claims a cure for cancer, or that red wine is good for you. Of course, scientific results are far more complex than that and storytelling gives us a chance to communicate that complexity without sending people to sleep.

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  • Anna Johansson

    Looking forward to reading your blogs! Good luck!

    2018.12.19