book with science symbolsIf you want to grab and keep people’s attention, utilizing storytelling techniques in your communication — written, verbal or otherwise — can be powerful. Storytelling is a tried-and-true method of sharing information, one that long precedes the scientific paper. Good stories appeal to our humanity, tap into our emotions, create a connection and can keep the listener engaged as they become invested in the outcome.

It may seem counterintuitive to incorporate storytelling into our science, partly because we’re used to interacting with other scientists in a very particular way. While connecting with scientists is commonplace for us at the College of the Environment, it isn’t for nearly everyone else. Most people don’t personally know a scientist, rarely ever meet a scientist and have difficulty even naming one. Of course, this makes sense: far fewer than 0.1% of the world’s population identify as scientists.

With that in mind, it also makes sense that communicating about our research to various publics in the same way we communicate to our peers often does not translate. This can be a barrier to your work having its greatest impact; people need to understand your work and relate to it in order for them to see how it makes their lives or world better. Leading with a data-driven “just the facts” approach often falls short of gaining people’s attention and making the case for why our work matters.

The next time you try to get someone’s attention about your work, think about incorporating storytelling elements. Below are some tips of what makes a good story that you might include.

Capturing the Imagination

The day-to-day for scientists may seem routine or like a chore for us — working with uncooperative study organisms, taking field measurements at dawn, spending an entire summer off the grid or at sea on a research vessel — but it is totally out of the ordinary for most people. Help transport your listener to the places you go for research, visually and verbally, and you’ll capture their imagination and attention. What’s it like to be on the high seas? How does it feel to deploy a robot on the ocean floor? How did you react to that brown bear you surprised in the field? What animals did you see when you first deployed a camera trap? Take people along on the adventure with you, and you’ll have them hooked to listen for more.

Discovery and Unexpected Findings

The excitement of a breakthrough discovery or results that change how we think about an issue not only thrills scientists, but other audiences too. Conveying your enthusiasm about discovery or how we thought the world worked one way, but turns out it works another, taps into people’s curiosity about the unknown. That we have so much to learn about our universe, and that scientists are utilizing ever-evolving tools to understand it, can spark imagination and wonder in your audience.

Timeliness: why now?

Does your research relate to a particular issue on people’s minds? Tapping into that will help people remember your work and why it matters. For example, if you work on the ecological impacts of wildfires, talking about that in the dead of winter can seem inconsequential; people have other things on their minds, like the amount of snowfall in the mountains or why this season seems wetter than last. But if you talk about your work in the spring or summer as people are getting outside again and into the forest, or when the smoke from a massive fire blows into town, your research immediately connects with something that is top-of-mind for people and you’ll capture their interest.

Tension and Drama

Did you face obstacles in your research? Did you wonder if you’d ever cross the finish line and publish your results? Were there bad actors or faceless institutions standing in your way? How did you overcome them? Highlighting these moments of tension or drama grabs people’s imagination, as they wonder if the protagonist (you!) will prevail and how. Talking about what you overcame to complete your work is a classic storytelling technique that has kept audiences on the edges of their seats for ages.

How does this relate to me?

Much of what we study can seem hard to connect to people’s daily lives. Why should a random member of the public care if a nonnative clam species is taking up space on Puget Sound’s shores? Thinking about your research from your audience’s perspective can help frame its importance in terms they can connect to. People might care about that invasive clam if it diminishes their ability to go out and enjoy fresh, local seafood, or if it wreaks havoc on other elements of a beach ecosystem that they love.

Follow a Narrative Arc

A narrative arc simply refers to the structure and shape of a story. It describes its progression, from the beginning where all seems to be normal, to the middle where something changes and there is rising tension and conflict, to the end where there is resolution of some kind. Nearly all good films and novels follow a strong narrative arc. Using some or all of the elements above, see if you can piece together a narrative that will keep your audience engaged and invested in the outcome.

The power of good storytelling doesn’t simply hold true for non-scientists; our peers are also human beings, hard-wired with emotion, opinions and rich personalities and interests. Even when communicating with colleagues, adding elements of storytelling will help unlock their own imaginations and hold their attention, and help your talk at a scientific conference rise above the rest. Give it a try!