Everyone has a story tell. From books to movies to conversations around the dinner table, we are exposed to stories every day, even if we don’t consciously realize it. But more and more folks are realizing the value and power of storytelling, especially those in the scientific community.
Storytelling Is the New “It” Thing in Communication
Humans have been using storytelling since the dawn of communication. It’s a universal trait. Storytelling is special because it has a biological component: Stories can connect people on a neurological level, connecting us to memories of certain times, places, and people [Shree, 2015; Liu et al., 2017].
In contemporary culture, storytelling is having its moment in the spotlight. Publications like the Atlantic and the New York Times have devoted pieces to the history and structure behind telling stories. Personal storytelling organizations like The Moth are experiencing continued growth around the country. And recently, a lot of stock has been put into the value of storytelling as a communication tool not just for entertainment but also for news and commercialism.
As a result, the definition of storytelling is highly variable. In the corporate world, it can mean telling personal stories of business success to inspire employees and build trust with customers, partners, investors, or other stakeholders [Hutchinson, 2018]. In entertainment, companies like Pixar have developed principles that guide their storytelling in a way that elicits specific feelings from their audience. Even in the science community, where the goals can vary from translating complex scientific results to solicitations that implore the listener to act, as with climate change, storytelling can take many different forms.
What Are the Pieces of a Story?
Like most forms of communication, we can break storytelling down into its basic parts.
The basic structure of a story is an arc. Borrowing from Freytag’s pyramid [Freytag, 1896], which Gustav Freytag constructed to outline the plot structure of a drama, a story has the following basic parts: introduction of the setting, inciting incident (i.e., something happens!), rising action (obstacle, obstacle, obstacle), climax, falling action, and, finally, resolution (Figure 1). The rising and falling are your pyramid shape, or, as it’s commonly referred to, the three-act arc.
A story is more than an arc alone. Stories should be interesting; they should captivate their audiences. Stories should have people, or a personal interest, to focus on. This focus allows the audience to have a vested interest in some component of the story. There should be suspense, tension, mystery, or intrigue and a protagonist that develops alongside the introduction of these elements. As the story progresses, these changes cause the audience to ask what’s next and keep them on the edges of their seats.
A good example of an effective storyteller in the scientific realm is Rachel Carson. Carson was an ecologist and is most well known for her book Silent Spring, which describes how pesticides such as DDT were harming people and wildlife. In the introduction of her book, she doesn’t start with the scientific details, outlining the chemical composition of pesticides. She starts with a story that she calls “A Fable for Tomorrow”:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings….Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families….Children…would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
By telling a story, Carson is able to reel in her audience, eliciting from them the question that all scientists ask: “Why?”
A story should contain elements that cause the audience to become emotionally invested in the story and make them able to imagine the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of what’s going on, as if it’s happening to them.
Each of these techniques pulls the audience along the arc of the story, leading them to the conclusion the teller intends to impart.
How Is AGU Telling Stories?
AGU has taken a deep dive into storytelling. For years, AGU’s Sharing Science Program has taught scientists about the value of storytelling when communicating their science and its value through workshops, webinars, online content, and more. Recently, more teams at AGU have recognized the value of talking science via stories.
In November 2017, AGU released the first episode of its podcast Third Pod from the Sun. The podcast features scientists discussing the methods behind their work. The tagline says it all: “These are stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture.”
Since then, Third Pod has released over 35 episodes featuring stories about pouring lava in a parking lot in Syracuse, N.Y., the secret (and sometimes scandalous) lives of tide gauge operators, and pollution in India that turns water buffalos pink. In celebration of AGU’s Centennial, our Third Pod team has covered historical topics such as the discovery of the ozone hole and an abandoned military base leeching toxic chemicals into the environment. But most of all, they’ve featured people—scientists and advocates who help bring a human face to science. By talking to people like photographer James Balog about his unlikely path to becoming a climate advocate and researcher Renata Netto about the challenges she’s faced as a woman in science, the podcast team has focused on humanizing science and scientists through stories.
AGU has also partnered with storytelling organizations to further its science storytelling reach. At AGU’s Fall Meetings 2017 and 2018, the Sharing Science Program was delighted to host the science storytelling organization the Story Collider, which brought scientists and journalists on stage to tell true, personal stories to a live audience. The Story Collider presents these shows around the world to demonstrate that everyone has a story about science no matter their background, profession, gender, ethnicity, or other characteristic.
We’ve also launched the AGU Narratives project as part of our Centennial. The goal of Narratives is to “connect the Earth and space science community, amplify our voice, and inspire those around us” through storytelling. Narratives encourages AGU scientists to share personal stories about what drives and inspires them and to reflect on the value and impact of Earth and space science.
Storytelling at AGU happens via several media. In addition to audio (Third Pod, Story Collider, Narratives) and written (Eos) forms, AGU members can also tell stories via photos and videos through Tumblr and Instagram. On Tumblr, scientists are encouraged to submit Postcards from the Field to show off their field sites with a short accompanying note.
We also ask members to take over our AGU Instagram account for a few days at a time in a “rotating curator” format that’s becoming increasingly popular on social media. AGU encourages participants to share their lab, field, or outreach photos and videos to show what goes into doing research and being a scientist. Similar to Third Pod from the Sun, Instagram allows scientists to share the fun parts or behind the scenes tasks that don’t always make it into a manuscript or lecture.
Storytelling in science will continue to get more popular, and those who choose to communicate science through storytelling should be familiar with the basic tenets of what makes a story and to whom they want to tell that story. If you’re looking for inspiration or advice, AGU is a great place to start.
Freytag, G. (1896). Freytag’s Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art, Scholarly Press, Chicago, Ill.
Hutchinson K. (2018), Stories and storytelling for small business leaders, in Leadership and Small Business, pp. 69–87, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64777-7.
Liu, Y., et al. (2017), Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy, Sci. Rep., 7, 43293, https://doi.org/10.1038/srep43293.
Shree, S. (2015), A conceptual model on the use of stories as a tool for trainers for better engagement & learning of the trainees, Int. J. Appl. Bus. Econ. Res., 13(6), 4,437–4,444.
Hanlon, S. M. (2019), AGU has a story to tell, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO127779. Published on 05 July 2019.
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