Practical Storytelling Series (Part 2): Numbers as Narrators

The following is the second installation in a three-part series on practical storytelling, helping to give researchers, scientists and authors some actionable tips and background to begin to craft their own science stories. For more information, please contact us here at Before the Abstract.

Written by Alexander Brown

As researchers you deal with a large amount of data, much of which is likely discipline-specific. And as you move down the primrose path of scientific storytelling it may seem—at times—that incorporating those cold, hard facts and figures may be challenging when working in this format. But as you know, numbers tell stories of their own, and finding a way to work them in to our narratives is an important mission of the storyteller. As one of my former professors would say, stories are the “Trojan Horse” for data.trojan-horse

In a 1969 study in Southern California,* researchers wanted to examine how stories and narratives could aid recall of facts and figures. They divided a group of participants in half. The participants in one group were given a list of 12 nouns to memorize, while those of the other group were asked to string these same nouns into a story. After a brief amount of time each participant was asked to recall the words they were given, and at first, there was little difference. Both recalled upward of 90 percent of the nouns. But after only a small amount of additional time, the recall of those in the group that strung these words together into a short, 1-to-2-minute story remembered far more. Recall rates were comparable at somewhere below 20 percent for those who memorized the words, but in the 90th-percentile for those who crafted a brief narrative. Can you imagine if you could get audiences to remember six to seven times more after hearing you speak, just by using a story?

If you listen to the earnings calls of large, publicly-traded companies, the c-suite of these institutions frequently interpret these figures through a narrative lens for investors: “In early spring we introduced product X, to which we saw some initial resistance from the market. But by the end of the quarter it had caught on and helped contribute greatly to our beating the forecast. We expect this trend to continue.” In essence they are using a mini-narrative to make meaning, provide context and persuade investors and financial press to interpret their results in a particular fashion.

A fantastic example of this in the sciences comes from Hans Rosling, Professor at Karolinska Institute. Dr. Rosling is a Swedish MD, academic, statistician and public speaker who gave an excellent TED talk using storytelling for context. In just the first five-odd minutes the audience had an incredibly nuanced and contextual understanding of the world’s HIV-AIDS crisis, and its evolution over time.

As with any occasion in which we use storytelling, the idea is to reach our audiences in a way that is emotional and empathic. This helps us to circumvent our natural inclination for skepticism by leveraging our natural inclination toward narrative. And an easy way to begin to do this is to start with what we know best—our own experiences.

As the live events, podcasts and written stories here at Before the Abstract aim to do, humanizing and personalizing your own story behind the science is a wonderful way to being to set up the frame through which your audience will interpret your results. Why did you seek the data you explored? Why were you interested in studying this particular topic? Moreover, what are the real implications of your work, and how do those dense numbers and stats support this? If you use narrative and the tell the stories behind the data, you will begin to reach far greater numbers of audiences and audience members, and that can only be a boon to what you are doing in the field or in the lab.

Alexander Brown has worked in public relations and communications for more than 15 years, and has coached dozens of storytellers including c-suite executives, graduate students and researchers. During his time at Springer Nature he presented on this and other communications topics for both internal and external audiences, including customers, fellow Springer Nature employees and industry trade organization members. Alex was also a co-founder of Springer Nature Storytellers, and the Before the Abstract platform.

*Bower, Gordon H. & Clark, Michael C. “Narrative Stories as Mediators for Serial Learning.” Psychonomic Science, 1969, Vol. 14 (4).

Practical Storytelling Series: Language, Like Data, Makes a Difference

The following is the first installation in a three-part series on practical storytelling, helping to give researchers, scientists and authors some actionable tips and background to begin to craft their own science stories. For more information, please contact us here at Before the Abstract.

Written by Alexander Brown

In 2002 researcher Melanie Green and her collaborator Timothy Brock developed what they called the “Transportation-Imagery Model.”1 Green and Brock were investigating the reasons why narratives and stories seem to be such an effective means of human persuasion. They posited that the act of “transporting” a listener, reader or other audience member into the world of a story may allow the storyteller to change attitudes and beliefs as the real world fades away into the boundaries of the narrative.

Subsequent research by Green and others—like that of Tom van Laer, et. al.2—continued to build on this idea, and helped establish just how narratives can transport audiences, and the effects of doing so. And while there are a host of different theories and ideas on how and why this works, there are two overarching qualities that allow stories to transport audiences: evoking empathy, and generating rich mental imagery. So what does this have to do with you?

As researchers you are actively communicating with a number of audiences simultaneously, and the goal of many of these interactions is likely to persuade. Securing grant money, soliciting press coverage, staying on track for tenure, etc., all require you to move and engage others who may or may not be familiar with your work. Whatever your ends might be, transporting others through storytelling and narrative is your secret weapon to compete among the chorus of others seeking the time and resources of your audiences. So let’s talk a bit about how to do this, but before doing so, consider the following:

“It was an oppressive and stiflingly sticky day on New York’s Upper West Side, so much so that the straining window-unit air conditioner wheezing out cold air was barely doing its job. The air from the vent hit me in the face from the side as I sat at my desk, freezing the extremities on my right half, but leaving beads of sweat free to trace their way down my spine. Hardly able to focus on anything in front of me, I was jerked into attention by the text message notification on my phone. A pang of anxiety shot through my stomach as my thoughts—in spite of the promise I made to myself to remain calm and collected—betrayed me. “Is this it?” I thought. “Is this the message I’ve been waiting for to tell me that the plan was finally set in motion?”

Take a moment to consider what you felt as you read it. Hopefully for a brief moment you felt yourself overheated and anxious in a small apartment in the West 70s or 80s in Manhattan. As it turns out, rich language like the text above is key to this idea of transportation. Here are three simple tips for helping you move your audience out of the here and now by changing your language from normative to narrative:

  1. Activate the Senses: A fantastic article by Annie Murphy Paul appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review back in 2012 titled “Your Brain on Fiction.”3 In the piece the author explores the neuroscience behind what happens to our brain chemistry when we read fictional stories. Paul dives into several studies from around the world and uncovers some fascinating evidence of how our brains allow us to identify with the characters (remember that empathy thing?). It seems that we do so in part because our brains appear to be chemically and neurologically going through the same experiences as those in the story. Whether it is reading words with strong odor associations, encountering metaphors like “leathery hands” or “velvet voice,” or taking actions like kicking a ball, when we read about what characters do, our brains seemingly make little distinction between these fictional experiences and actually engaging in them ourselves. The bottom line is that using rich, sensory language can go a long way to transporting your audiences into your world and helping to move them to your side.
  1. Find the Fine Details: Likewise, using small, telling details when crafting your stories can be incredibly powerful in painting a vivid picture for your audience. The frozen right half of the character’s face from the example above, or the beads of sweat, all help to make us actually feel what our characters are going through. So if you are describing your field research, don’t be shy to describe the cracked mud wall of the hut you lived in for 13 months, or the deafening silence of the observatory at midnight. It helps our audiences understand what we go through, what your work entails, and helps form a very personal connection.
  1. Be Precise: As a scientist you already know how critical it is to be unforgiving in your pursuit of precision. If your data is off by just a little, it can sometimes mean the difference between a breakthrough and a breakdown. The same goes for crafting stories. If you really want to transport audiences, give them an exact place to land. Anchor your narrative in precise times and places (like a hot day in New York). In the same vein, if you are inviting them to be a fly on the wall, use verbatim dialogue or thoughts (“Is this it?” I thought. “Is this the message I’ve been waiting for to tell me that the plan was finally set in motion?”). While we all like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes—and we are—we still have many of the same thoughts and feelings as each other. So if it is connection with our character (YOU!) that we want to form with our audience, let them see how similar you are, and paint your thoughts for them.

Storytelling is not something that is (necessarily4) taught in the pursuit of science. But if science itself points to its efficacy, isn’t it time to rethink its place in our day-to-day? Recreating an experience for our audience by using the sights, smells and emotions of our characters can make a meaningful connection with others, transporting them into our parallel worlds. And doing so will pay off in spades for you and your work.

Alexander Brown has worked in public relations and communications for more than 15 years, and has coached dozens of storytellers including c-suite executives, graduate students and researchers. During his time at Springer Nature he presented on this and other communications topics for both internal and external audiences, including customers, fellow Springer Nature employees and industry trade organization members. Alex was also a co-founder of Springer Nature Storytellers, and the Before the Abstract platform.

References:

  1. Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). “In the mind’s eye: Transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion.” In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. (pp. 315-341). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Van Laer, T., De Ruyter, K., Visconti, L. M., & Wetzels, M. (2014). “The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of consumers’ narrative transportation.” Journal of Consumer Research, 40(5), 797-817
  3. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. March 17, 2012.
  4. Chang, Kenneth. “Attention, All Scientists: Do Improv, With Alan Alda’s Help. The New York Time March 2, 2015

Jerry Franklin: The Joy of Being Blindsided

Dr. Jerry Franklin is gifted with a revelation about nature’s legacies during his years of work on Mount St. Helens.

Jerry Franklin, PhD, is a Professor of Ecosystem Analysis, College of Forest Resources at the  University of Washington, Seattle. He is a world-renowned forest ecologist who has been called “the father of new forestry.” Read more about him here.

Surgeon Storytellers Delight and Awe in Washington, DC

Last Monday, October 17, 2016, Springer Nature Storytellers returned to the stage and opened the fall season with a live surgery-themed show in Washington, DC, the location for the 2016 American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress(ACSCC).

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Co-hosts, Shane M. Hanlon and Farah Z. Ahmad, photo by Michael Bonfigli

After a busy first day in the exhibit hall, Springer staff, authors and curious members of the public gathered at Busboys and Poets, a beautiful local neighborhood hangout in the historic Mount Vernon Triangle district, just steps from ACSCC, for an evening of storytelling by surgeons themselves. Guests staked out their spots in the theatre-style set-up, enjoying a drink on the house and indulging in complimentary refreshments as they waited for the show to begin.

Without a chair to spare, co-hosts, Shane M. Hanlon and Farah Z. Ahmad, both members of our partnering organization, The Story Collider, took the stage and warmed up the audience with anecdotes and experiences related to surgery, from their own lives.

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Dr. Mahul B. Amin, photo by Michael Bonfigli

Our first storyteller and Springer author, Dr. Mahul B. Amin, Editor in Chief of the much-anticipated 8th edition of the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, took the stage with a smile and an enthralling tale of growing up in India, remarking on how his father’s career as a door-to-door physician impacted his work in developing personalized patient care  as one of the world’s leading pathologists.

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Dr. Marie Crandall, photo by Michael Bonfigli

Dr. Marie Crandall took our breath away with first-person accounts of the devastation a trauma surgeon witnesses due to gunshot fatality among Chicago’s youth. Her passion and motivation to change the circumstances within which she works, including details of the incredible research she has led, left the audience suspended in disbelief.

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Amy Oestreicher, photo by Michael Bonfigli

Before a brief intermission, Amy Oestreicher, a storyteller from The Story Collider, injected a patient perspective into the mix with a remarkable personal account of having experienced over 30 surgeries to-date.

With drinks topped off and guests back in there seats, Dr. Kathy Hughes shared how building a social media presence and committing to science communication has helped her create an important balance between the nature of her job as a surgeon and her life-long dream of being a writer.

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Dr. Kathy A. Hughes, photo by Michael Bonfigli
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Dr. Rob B. Lim, photo by Michael Bonfigli

Before the night came to end, Dr. Robert B. Lim, author of the 2016 Springer title, Surgery During Natural Disasters, Combat, Terrorist Attacks, and Crisis Situations, shocked the room and yet gave us quite a few laughs with his accounts of being deployed to Iraq as part of a Forward Surgical Team in the United States Army.


Our opening show was a huge success and we can’t wait to give you an opportunity to hear these incredible stories for yourself here on the blog once the podcasts have been published.

Our next stops are Springer Nature Storytellers at the American Society of Criminology 2016 Annual Meeting next month in New Orleans (registration is now live) and Springer Nature Storytellers at American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2016 in San Francisco. Stay tuned for more updates and as always, if you have a story that you’d like to tell, visit our Pitch Page to find out how you can become a Springer Nature Storyteller!

The Top 10 Qualities of Scientist (Communicator) Leaders

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Nancy Baron (COMPASS Science Outreach Director) shares the key traits that define leaders in science. What’s the top quality that most sets them apart from their peers? Their expert ability to communicate.

Over the past 12 years as a communication trainer for the Leopold Leadership Program, and as a coach for many scientists, I have observed an intrinsic link between communication and leadership.  As I wrote in a past Nature Comment:

It’s no coincidence that environmental scientists who lead the pack, both within academia and beyond, are good communicators. These scientists know how to articulate a vision, focus a debate and cut to the essence of an argument. They can make a point compelling, even to those who disagree. They talk about their science in ways that make people sit up, take notice, and care.

I have also witnessed that, as scientists work toward becoming more effective communicators, they increasingly move into realms of leadership. When I look back at the early days and the scientists I have worked with this is evident in their trajectories. In a rough video clip I produced of a Leopold gathering in 2001 called “True Confessions: Coming Out of the Ivory Tower,” the fellows reveal why they decided they needed to work on communicating their science. “True Confessions” now has the unforeseen impact of a “before” glimpse of many scientists who have increasingly risen to leadership.

When you stand up and speak out – to the media, or policymakers, or you write an opinion piece or blog post – it is like a drop of water hitting the surface. It sends out ripples with unexpected repercussions – often, good ones.  Doors may swing open, new opportunities may arise.  You will meet new people and make new connections. Yet there are also challenges. Being a leader also means learning how to deal with the criticisms that arise, and keeping on keeping on. One thing, however, is clear – putting yourself and your science out there is a form of practice, learning, and giving.  And, by giving in that way it will somehow come back to you… thus a spirit of good intent is important.

"Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects." Dalai Lama. Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” –Dalai Lama.
Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they are not necessarily flashy. There is no single way to be, no single destination. It’s really a process of exploration, experimentation and finding your own voice.

And while communication is a critical aspect of leadership, there are other qualities as well. Here are the 10 key attributes that I see in scientist leaders – scientists who are making their science matter:

1) They have a vision – and can articulate it.

2) They are passionate. But don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve.

3) They work hard at communication… even if they make it look deceptively easy.

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.

5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

6) They are resilient. And pick themselves up and keep on going when they fall.

7) They are self-examining and adaptive.

8) They seek solutions. And address the “so what” so people care.

9) They have a fun factor or some kind of charisma – but are not necessarily extroverted.

10) They are persistent. Patience eventually pays off.

While these ten things make a leader, not everyone will have all of these qualities. But most, in my experience, have many. Do you agree or disagree? And who, as a scientist communicator and leader, is currently inspiring you?

*This article was originally published on May 13, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.