• Elisabeth Kugler

Researcher Visibility: Storytelling for Scientists


Generally, the more comfortably we understand a message, the easier we will remember. This is exemplified by the power of storytelling, which usually has a simple structure (i.e. a “narrative arc” in three parts – beginning, middle, and end; also called beginning, conflict, and resolution).


This is obviously just an example (probably a very poor one), but you get the idea. Stories and narratives can be entertaining, humorous, educational, relatable, memorable, or inspiring, the common trait for all of these is that they (a) are easy to follow, (b) evoke an emotional response, and (c) are memorable.


Beginning.

As the word suggests, begin – do not dive straight into your topic, but start at the point that people know and can relate to. This is where you can set the scene and you can introduce your characters.

E.g. protein X was previously shown to do Y in mice.


Take your time clarifying why your story is important and even though everyone knows that you care, take this opportunity to share why your audience should care.

E.g. a loss in protein X leads to Z disease.


Conflict.

This is the centrepiece of your story. You can use words/phrases such as “but, however, there is the need, there was an inconsistency, there are contradicting data, there is no method / model / tool, etc.”, which can indicate the conflict and tension.

E.g. however, there is currently no treatment, leading to XYZ diseases effecting 2% of the population.


Resolution.

This is where we can go into length about what happened as reaction to the conflict and who the key characters are, as well as what they do.

E.g. we showed that protein X is regulated by Q, which led to screening the compound library P allowing us to identify drug ABC, which is now in a phase I clinical trial; we started to collaborate with research group T, etc.


Conclusion.

Wrap things up (in talks this is often done in a summary slide) and make sure you do not introduce any new concepts here. It is called “the end” not “the and”, so make sure you wrap up briefly with highlights and key points. Also, do not go into unnecessary detail which might clutter your key information.

E.g. Together, by studying protein X we found one potential therapeutic target and drug ABC is currently in a phase I clinical trial.


Resources for storytelling in science have become widely available; with many scientists even participating in things such as improve-theatre to increase their communication skills.


Useful communication and storytelling resources for scientists

  • “Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style“ by Randy Olson

  • “The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations with or without Slides“ by Garr Reynolds

  • “Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck“ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath 

  • “Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals“ by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic 

  • Storytelling: The Soul of Science Communication by Marina Joubert, Lloyd Davis and Jennifer Metcalfe; DOI: https://doi.org/10.22323/2.18050501


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© 2020 by Elisabeth Kugler.