Engage with your audience with evidence-based storytelling
Holly Cave, SciencePOD content creator
The way in which science writers communicate is equally important as the content itself – something Charles Darwin mastered in his 1859 opus On the Origin of Species.
In what is arguably the most famous and influential piece of science writing in an evidence-based storytelling manner ever written in the English language, Darwin presented many of his revolutionary ideas about evolution through that most classic of narrative structures – a grand voyage – recounting his exploits and discoveries during his time aboard the HMS Beagle with lyricism.
The most powerful pieces of writing not only inform but also inspire. And the best way of doing that is by telling a story.
Why are stories so powerful?
Scientists believe that human language developed in close symmetry with social cognition – our ability to share emotions and relate experiences. Ultimately, developing complex verbal and written communication allowed us to gossip. And thousands of years later, our brains are still wired to be most strongly drawn to people. Personal stories fire our interest and curiosity.
Research backs this up. Psychologists at McMaster University scanned the brains of participants using a method known as fMRI and presented them with short news-style headlines. They then asked them to explain the headlines using speech, gestures, or drawing.
This activated the parts of the brain linked to motivation, belief, emotion, and action. Researchers concluded that our brains relate best to the thoughts and feelings of others.
Whatever people in the story do, the sensory cortex of our brain imagines us doing the same thing, it appears. Neuroscientists based at Princeton University have shown that the same sensory areas of the brain are activated for both listeners and storytellers. This means that when you read, hear or watch a gripping story, your brain reacts as if you are experiencing it for yourself.
Our brains cannot help but respond emotionally to a character-driven plot, generating chemicals including the hormones oxytocin and cortisol. Oxytocin – dubbed the “love hormone” – boosts empathy and compassion, compelling us to act cooperatively and build connections. Cortisol helps formulate memories. The influence of these hormones creates far more impact than facts alone can generate. In short, a good story pulls us in.
Science – truth or belief?
Accuracy is, of course, vitally important. After all, we are talking here about communicating science, not nailing a killer plot. In the current “post-truth” climate of fake news and online misinformation, now, more than ever, it’s vital that we deliver facts supported by the latest scientific evidence, not anecdotes. This develops the evidence-based storytelling format.
However, fake news spreads much faster than facts on Twitter, a recent MIT Media Lab study found. This realization prompted the emergence of a new generation of fact-checking websites such as FactCheck.org.
Getting science stories right is often not as easy as it sounds. Science is expected to be dispassionate and unbiased. But, although there are largely inarguable, core truths to our modern understanding of the world, so much of science is the pursuit of truth. It is an active process with twists, turns, and grey areas, which can be tricky to convey.
Even if scientists can somehow succeed in carrying out their research like robots, readers of their results will always look for the story beneath the facts. You simply cannot escape the brain’s search for plot and character. However, if we accept that science, as a story, is also about belief, it frees us to construct more emotionally provocative narratives that connect science and people.
Storytellers should not distort the truth, write public policy experts, but “help people to connect with problems and issues on a more human level in terms of what matters to them” through evidence-based storytelling.
Research has shown that narratives can be used to sway beliefs about numerous science topics, such as vaccines, climate change, and HIV/AIDS. So, if you can find a way to describe not just the what of science, but also the who and why, your story will offer both integrity and inspiration.
Start evidence-based storytelling in science
A 2017 article in Nature describes the steps one might take in constructing compelling evidence-based storytelling:
- Cast your characters (the hero, villain, and victims)
- Define the problems which drive the plot
- Argue the moral of the story
Similar techniques developed at the Field Museum in Chicago engage students by depicting scientists as “real human beings” and build science stories by making the scientist the storyteller. They have also told stories from the perspective of an important object, animal, or plant that has provided a scientist with new insights.
Their approach always frames research with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The beginning – the hook – “may take the form of a puzzling question, a problem, or a compelling object designed to spark curiosity and drive the learning experience”. The middle focuses on the storyteller’s investigations, experiences, and questions, and the ending, or resolution, shows the solution or encourages further inquiry.
In fact, there are only so many types of stories that people tell. A recent study by data scientists has shown that fiction is based on far fewer storylines than we might imagine. Relying on natural language processing methods applied to over a thousand works of fiction in English, Andrew Reagan from the University of Vermont, USA, and colleagues have shown that popular stories typically contain six main storylines.
So, consider taking your cue from one of these. And be always on the lookout for ways in which you can encourage your audience to respond and actively engage, thus making them a meaningful part of the narrative.
Regardless of whether it is a ‘rags to riches’ or a ‘riches to rags’ account, all the evidence suggests that if you want to use science to engage, persuade or excite, you need to tell a captivating story.