A Seismologist’s Guide to Storytelling

On December 15, 2016, Springer Nature Storytellers hosted a show in conjunction with the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Susan Hough shared a moving story of her experience in Port-au-Prince, where she was sent to lead a deployment of seismometers in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Just last week was the anniversary of this devastating natural disaster and here Susan reflects on her experience as a Springer Nature Storyteller, sharing her involvement in the aftermath of the earthquake. Stay tuned for her podcast coming soon! 

Written by Susan Hough

I didn’t hesitate to say yes when offered the opportunity to be one of the storytellers at the Springer Nature sponsored Story Collider event at the 2016 AGU meeting.  I’ve been telling stories of one sort or another since I first learned how to use a pencil.

It did not escape me that, while all of my past storytelling has been on paper, this time it would be on stage.  At the beginning of my career my response would likely have been different;  even a straightforward 13-minute AGU talk was terrifying enough.  With enough preparation I could make it through talks, but I always felt like I had checked my brain at the door.  The worst part was dealing with, or rather not dealing with, questions afterwards.

But over the nearly three decades (gulp) since receiving my PhD, I’ve mostly gotten over the stage jitters, so the idea of telling a personal story on stage seemed like a reasonable thing to agree to.

As a seismologist who has pursued a variety of projects including chasing earthquakes to distant corners of the globe, I’ve had my share of field adventures, and several possible stories came to mind immediately.  Then Lucy Frisch sent along a link to Aerin Jacob’s story, “Stuck in the Serengeti.”  I listened, enthralled, as Jacob recounted her adventures.  My immediate thought afterwards, was, compared to cheetahs and machine guns in the Serengeti, I got nothing.

But one nanosecond later I knew which story I wanted to tell.  After bouncing the idea off of Lucy, the writer in me sprang into action.  Within about an hour I had put together a  first draft.  The first part of the story was easy to write, a simple matter of describing events.  The closing of the story—the take-away lessons from my (mis-)adventures in Haiti—didn’t come quite as easily.   When I had a chance to talk by phone to Lucy and Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, in early November, I read through my draft, noting that the ending still needed some work.  Erin made a couple of terrific suggestions; whether or not I did her ideas justice, I’m not sure, but I tried, and could see how they improved the story.

The ending fell into place over the next few weeks as I continued to think about, and practice, the story.  The words hadn’t fallen into place immediately because, even though my story had happened six years ago and I’ve thought about it any number of times since then, it was the first time I had tried to actually articulate, and share, the lessons I had learned from it.  Before any story can be shared, it has to be crafted, a process that can stretch one’s thoughts towards new horizons – in particular if one is challenged to tell a different, more personal kind of story than scientists are used to telling.  The first revelation of my Story Collider experience wasn’t in the sharing, but in the crafting.

The sharing part turned out to be a little more than I’d bargained for.  I realized that my nonchalance about telling a story on stage had been premature.  Sure, I had several decades of talks under my belt, but this time there would be no slides, or notes.  Just me with a microphone, alone on that stage.  I was not blessed with a photographic memory, and as soon as I started practicing telling my story without a draft in front of me, I realized what a challenge it would be.   And so I practiced, and practiced, and practiced.  My morning drive to the office takes a little more than 10 minutes, so I’d tell my story to myself as I drove to work.   It became the bedtime story I told to myself at night.  Once at AGU, the walk from my hotel to the Moscone Center was just long enough to run through the story in my head.  Even when I knew that I knew the story like the back of my hand, I practiced and practiced and practiced.  The only thing I had to fear, of course, was fear itself: the reappearance of my old nemesis, stage fright, that would cause my brain to fly out the window.

Then the big day arrived.  I stood up and started to tell my story, at a venue that turned out to be, strangely enough, outside…only to be interrupted by children talking loudly in the audience, which made me lose my train of thought completely.  I slinked off the stage and hid behind a wall, dumb-struck, mortified, and utterly disappointed that all the practice had been for naught.

Never in my entire life have I been so overjoyed to wake up, and be able to laugh at my creative rendition of the classic college nightmare.  When the time came to stand and deliver for realz, the hours of practice were not for naught; the story was nearly seamless, and seemed to be well-received by the intrepid crowd that had braved the stormy weather to attend.

The second revelation of the experience came afterwards, when I was contacted about putting together a short article based on my story. I realized that some stories aren’t meant to be shared on paper, they’re meant to be shared out loud; precisely the personal kinds of stories that scientists don’t usually tell.  The final revelation followed immediately, namely an appreciation of the genius of the Story Collider mission to bring science to a broader audience by bringing scientists to a broader audience.  As people.  Alone on that stage.  No slides.  No props.  Those terrifying 13 minutes were not only, hands down, the highlight of the meeting for me, but I expect will reach a broader audience than anything else I said or did at that week.  The only thing I’m left wondering is, when can I do it again?

Do you want to be a Springer Nature Storyteller in 2017? If you have a story you’d like to share, whether at one of our live shows or written and featured here on Before the Abstract, please get in touch through the instructions on our Pitch Page.


Dr. Mahul Amin: Then the Doorbell Rang

One evening of Diwali 45 years ago in Mumbai, India inspires global cancer staging in a way Dr. Mahul B. Amin could never have imagined.

Dr. Amin is the Editor-in-Chief of the 8th edition of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging manual, where he has coordinated the activities of over 425 contributors from 184 institutions, 23 countries, and 5 continents to outline the latest edition of the cancer staging manual.

The Springer Nature Storytellers 2016 Playlist

After a brief hiatus earlier this year, Springer Nature Storytellers certainly made up for lost time with some incredible new podcasts and three highly attended live shows (podcasts to come 2017)! In case you missed any of the stories we released, here’s a complete playlist of every episode shared in 2016. As always, we highly recommend browsing our complete library for some other fascinating science stories.



Having just returned from the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, we’re still buzzing with excitement over the earth and space science stories shared. Stay tuned early next year for these as well as surgery and criminology stories to kick off Springer Nature Storytellers in 2017! Happy listening!

Do you want to be a Springer Nature Storyteller in 2017? If you have a story you’d like to share, whether at one of our live shows or written and featured here on Before the Abstract, please get in touch through the instructions on our Pitch Page.

Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik: Work-Life Continuum

Becoming a mother challenges Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik to rethink personal and professional boundaries in her classroom.

Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik, PhD, is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Electronic Materials.

Practical Storytelling Series (Part 3): How to Make Your Research a Cinderella Story

The following is the third and final 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

You probably recall sometime early in life sitting in an elementary-school classroom and learning about how to compose a story. Beginning, middle, and end. Right? For many of us, those lessons in primary and secondary school, and maybe even in undergrad, were a very long time ago and at an earlier stage than advanced science curricula. But as we begin to craft stories of our own, and especially if we are doing so with professional goals in mind, it is helpful to review the basics of effective story structure.

A basic story structure has—you guessed it—a beginning, a middle and an end. However, if we examine the practices of screenwriters, authors and other professional storytellers, there are other equally important elements that help to move a story along, and which help us to construct these narratives in a calculated, structured way.

  1. Beginning: The natural tendency of almost EVERYONE is to give an elaborate backstory and context before starting on the real meat of a story. This is a mistake. The story should really begin shortly before the action starts to take place, some brief background serving only to set the scene. This is especially true for when we are telling stories in a professional setting, often with limited time and attention spans. If we don’t follow this rule, we run the risk of muddling our message or losing our audience’s focus with too much background. So start when the action kicks off, which brings us to…
  2. The Inciting Incident: This is a term often used in screenwriting meaning the moment that the events of a story are set into motion. This can be as simple as receiving a phone call, or something as dramatic as a plane crash (though I hope that is not where your story begins). Whatever it might be, this is the moment when the problem our characters have to solve begins to emerge.
  3. Obstacles: Stories are really about conflict and struggle (and change, but more on that later). If stories weren’t about struggle or obstacles, they would be pretty boring, right? Think of your favorite book or movie. I bet the characters had to overcome some pretty extreme obstacles in the course of that narrative to arrive at where they ended up. The struggle of our characters is what compels us to identify with them, connect with their plight and make meaning for ourselves in our own lives. It is critically important that the characters in our stories do not just encounter a straight road to success.
  4. Turning Point: Not to be confused with the climax of a story, the turning point is really the moment past which nothing will ever be the same. It usually comes about three quarters of the way through a book or film. Our characters may have already struggled and overcome some incredible odds, but this is the moment when they can never go back.
  5. Climax: Following our turning point there is usually another set of challenges that we go through which eventually lead us to the place we were inevitably headed—the climax. This is when it all comes to a head. It is the confluence of all the things that have led us to this point. It is when the sun rises over the hill and Gandalf comes riding over the ridge with the Knights of Gondor (excuse me for The Lord of the Rings reference if you are unfamiliar). It is the moment of truth.
  6. The End: In the same way the beginning should come just before the inciting incident, so should the end come shortly after the climax. Do not leave a lot of time in between the two, but rather, make the end short, snappy and memorable. Use this opportunity to describe the whole new world in which our characters find themselves, and bring our audience to the moral of the story, which is to say, why your work is so important.
  7. Rising/Falling Actions: These are the areas in between critical junctures where the tension and drama builds, or falls, dependent on where we are in the story. This is the place where we either set the scene for our next obstacle, or describe how the world has changed after we overcome our last challenge.
  8. Change, Change, Change: I cannot overstate this enough. As I mentioned above, stories are ultimately about change. They are about how our worlds transform, and about how we get to states of understanding or being. If we end up exactly where we began, well then what was the point of our trials and tribulations? Our audience expects the payoff of something waiting on the other side of the narrative arc, so it helps to always think about how each moment of the story leads them to that end.

As an example, allow me to paraphrase a popular story that we likely all know—Cinderella. And for the sake of our global audience, I am using the American Disney version since that is most familiar to me.cinderella

  • We start out at the beginning with Cinderella as an indentured servant to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters (BEGINNING).
  • Until there is a knock at the door (INCITING INCIDENT).
  • It appears the Prince is having a ball to select his bride. But of course, Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters will not let her go. Without a means to get to the ball, Cinderella is stuck (OBSTACLE 1).
  • Until of course her fairy Godmother whips up a gown and a coach with all the trimmings, and Cinderella flies off to the ball. Once she is there she meets the Prince and they dance. It is at this point that nothing will ever be the same now that the Prince has met Cinderella and fallen in love (TURNING POINT).
  • However, the clock strikes 12 and Cinderella must race home, losing that glass slipper on the staircase. The Prince is left alone, and Cinderella’s life goes back to normal. That is until the Prince dispatches his men to find that girl. But when they arrive at Cinderella’s home she is locked away, almost missing her chance (OBSTACLE 2).
  • Until some wily mice steal the key and release Cinderella, allowing her to storm the room and slip her food into that glass slipper (CLIMAX).
  • Finally, she is reunited with Prince Charming and they live happily ever after, proving that true love conquers all (END).

While it may seem trite, the fairy tale does follow a simple structure that is easy to understand. I suspect your experiences are likely far more complicated. But by transforming your journey and your work into a dramatic, narrative arc, you can connect with audiences more deeply, make meaning for those who might never have had the chance, and turn your research into a true Cinderella story.

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.