World Storytelling Day 2017

Storytelling comes in many forms these days but whether you prefer to read, watch, or listen in, we can all agree that stories help us share our experiences and connect to each other in an unparalleled way. At Springer Nature, our preferred method of sharing stories is through the Springer Nature Storytellers program. As today is World Storytelling Day, we’re taking a moment to appreciate the science behind storytelling, our favorite medium for telling stories, and the remarkable scientists who have shared their stories with us.

The Power of Storytelling

In a guest post from the Director of our partner organization, The Story Collider, Liz Neeley cites the work of psychologist Susan Fiske who discovered that the public respects scientists but doesn’t necessarily trust them. Our perceptions of strangers are influenced mainly by two factors; competence and warmth. While scientists ranked high in competence, they received low scores in warmth.

That’s where the power of storytelling comes in. When we hear a story, one of the primary emotions that our brain experiences is empathy. By opening up and sharing a personal story, scientists actively melt the cold reputation that they often develop with the public.

Your Brain on Podcasts

We all have our favorite podcasts. They’re a fantastic way to stay entertained during our daily commute and can be an excellent opportunity to fit some new knowledge into our day. Podcasts are an especially great channel for science communication. Even the most complex scientific research can be made accessible to the public when unpacked in a brief radio segment. But did you know that listening to stories actually alters your brain chemistry?

In an April 2016 article titled “This is Your Brain on Podcasts,” The New York Times cited research published in our very own Naturehighlighting how both hemispheres of the brain quite literally light up when listening to a podcast—“A living internal reality takes over the brain.” Hearing one word will activate your brain’s entire network for that word. When we listen to stories specifically, our brains release more oxytocin, which is associated with empathy, as mentioned above. The power of podcasts lies in the way they hook our emotions and fire up our minds, activating the brain’s semantic network. Information we hear becomes more memorable; research becomes more impactful.

Listen to our podcast library here!

The Voices of Springer Nature Storytellers

We are fortunate to get to work with so many brilliant researchers, helping many of them find their storytelling voice for the first time. If you or someone you know has published with Springer Nature and has a story to tell, please get in touch by sending an email to stories@beforetheabstract.com. We want to hear your 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.” –Susan Hough, seismologist, US Geological Survey
“To offer advice to anyone contemplating doing this — in two words: do it. And when you do, focus on the personal aspects and let the science take a back seat.” –Kaspar von Braun, astrophysicist, Lowell Observatory

More About Storytelling

Check out Parts 1, 2 and 3 of our Practical Storytelling Series for tips and advice on how you can use storytelling to communicate your research with a wider audience.

And for further reading on storytelling from Springer Nature, take a look at the books, chapters, and articles linked below:

The Essential Role of Storytelling in the Search for Truth (Scientific American) (2017)

The Art of Storytelling (2016)

“The Physics of Love ©”: using humor and storytelling to open minds and hearts to green values (2014)

Storytelling: Critical and Creative Approaches (2013)

Storytelling in the Digital Age (2013)

Storytelling (2010)

 

Caught Being Stupid

Wishing to show the humanity and complexity of the lives of people who turn to drugs and crime, criminologist Heith Copes embarks on a photo ethnography of methamphetamine use in rural Alabama. But what begins as a research project quickly becomes a life-altering lesson in the truth behind stereotypes, the importance of empathy, and the unparalleled power of human connection.

Listen to Heith recount his time spent on Sand Mountain and meet the individuals from his story, captured in the emotional photo series GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain by Jared Ragland.

Listen on iTunes!

Hover over each photo to view captions and click to enlarge. Additional photographs and expanded captions can be seen at jaredragland.com.​

All photos by Jared Ragland, from the series GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama, 2015-2016.

 

Scientists, They’re Just Like Us

We asked The Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, to share her behind-the-scenes experience working with Springer Nature authors in preparation for our live storytelling events. Here Erin remarks on a single moment from Col. Robert Lim‘s story, explaining how personal stories have the power to humanize science in an unparalleled way. Stay tuned for Col. Lim’s story airing this Friday, February 17th! 

Written by Erin Barker

At the Story Collider’s “Surgeons” show with Springer Storytellers in DC last October, military surgeon Col. Rob Lim described standing at the border of Iraq in darkness before the initial invasion began in 2003, counting down, waiting for shock and awe. “We saw the planes go over, heard the artillery fire, it’s happening,” Lim said in his story. “I turned to one of my buddies and said, ‘How do we do our laundry?’”

Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider

This, to me, is the perfect example of what makes the kind of true, personal stories The Story Collider and Springer Storytellers produce so special. We often hear about medicine and international conflict, but we don’t often hear about the everyday, human aspects of being a person embroiled in these things. We can learn countless facts and figures, but to really understand what it feels like to be a part of it, in the moment? You can’t find that anywhere other than a true, personal story from someone’s life. These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have. They allow us to connect with someone we’ve never met. And building this connection between scientists and the public is becoming ever more important.

These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have.

For example, Stanford psychologist Susan Fiske has found that the general public respects scientists, but doesn’t quite trust them. According to Fiske, there are two factors that influence our perceptions of strangers: competence — how knowledgeable and capable we seem; and warmth — whether we have our our audience’s best interests in mind. In order to be seen as trustworthy, and communicate effectively with the public, we need to be perceived as both competent and warm. And in fact, warmth matters a lot. In her 2006 paper “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence,” Dr. Fiske tells us, “warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”

Unfortunately, when she conducted her study, asking her subjects to rate different professions and groups of people according to these qualities, scientists ranked high in competence but low in warmth.

I probably don’t need to tell you that scientists often focus on competence, and even deliberately tamp down perception of warmth to emphasize competence. It makes sense when you consider that, in many ways, scientists are trained to reduce their intrinsic warmth. It’s a natural instinct for a profession that, quite rightly, values objectivity. But when we focus on competence at the expense of warmth, we miss out on a valuable opportunity to connect with and inspire our audience.

So can scientists emphasize our warmth? According to Dr. Fiske, people trust people they think are like themselves — people who share their values and goals. And not only that, but they will go out of their way to support these folks. When we share stories that reveal our humanity, our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our humor, we show our audience that we’re like them, and that we’re trustworthy.

When Col. Lim shared his story with our audience, he became something even more than a surgeon who has saved lives on and off the battlefield — he became a real, live human being. Someone we feel like we know, and want to root for. When I worked with Col. Lim on his story in the weeks leading up to the show, I encouraged him to include not only the kind of details that let the audience visualize the experience, but also those that let us in on his mindset. For example, the fact that he was unable to shower for eighteen days as they made the long, slow trip into Baghdad. Hearing his human reactions to these things makes us think, Scientists–they’re just like us.

 

Why is the Why Difficult for Scientists?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, Karen McLeod (Interim Executive Director of COMPASS) asks scientists why, when their passion for their job is so evident in the work that they do, they rarely share their sentiments with the rest of the world.

Why Ask Why

If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle and embrace the Philosophy in your PhD for more effective #scicomm? Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important.

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

*This article was originally published on October 8, 2014. 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.