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

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