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.

 

A Call for Stories: Springer Nature Storyteller Fall Shows!

Springer Nature Storytellers is a unique program available to Springer Nature authors (read: have published with Springer, Nature, Macmillan Science and Education, Palgrave, BioMed Central or SpringerOpen brands) to harness the power of storytelling and increase exposure to their work within their field and beyond their scholarly circle.

Our storytelling events are an empowering opportunity for authors to talk about what they do and why it’s important to the public at large and we’re very excited to be bringing this live event to three conferences this fall:

American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress, October 16-20 in Washington, D.C. 

Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, November 16-19 in New Orleans, LA 

The American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, December 12-16 in San Francisco, CA

We want to hear your story! We’re looking for researchers with engaging stories that will leave their audience with a strong message (This podcast is one fantastic example of the type of storytelling we’re looking for). Stories may address:

-What inspired authors to become researchers

-Why a researcher studies his/her field

-What a researcher hopes to accomplish through his/her work

-A researcher’s most surprising finding(s)

-Obstacles overcome and surprise twists that led to new discoveries

-And anything else specific to your experience as a researcher!

If you would like to tell a five-to-ten minute story at one of these three meetings, in partnership with The Story Collider, please send a two-to-three-paragraph summary of your story idea to stories@beforetheabstract.com and include the intended conference name in your subject line, e.g. “Story pitch for ACS  meeting.” Please submit your story idea before the respective deadline: August 12th for the DC show, September 16th for the New Orleans show, and October 7th for the San Francisco show.

Check out our Pitch page for more information!