The art of scientific storytelling


Similar to many people in the field of science communication, I started out as a student in the sciences, looking forward to wearing a lab coat and contributing to the knowledge of humankind. As I progressed further through the studying, research opportunities, and everyday experiences that characterize the rites of passage of an aspiring scientist, however, I noticed a great gap in who I was able to communicate with about what I was learning. More than that, I realized that when I did talk about my work, many of my friends and family were politely waiting for me to stop talking. It was this turning point in which I started to notice this trend everywhere – when daily news shows hosted scientists to give a few sentences and hurriedly thanked them for their time before the scientists could get carried away, or the unenthused response of researchers listening to other researchers giving talks. It seemed to me that much of the research that was being done and discovered stayed within the small circles of individuals who had the time, knowledge, and motivation to read those scientific papers.

At the time of this realization, I was scrubbing mouse poop off of very expensive boxes and trying not to inhale too much ethanol while doing it. The very expensive boxes were brand-new behavioral testing apparatuses that I was using to determine whether a strain of mice were a suitable animal model for autism spectrum disorders. As I scrubbed, I wondered where my efforts would have the most direct impact. I so looked up to my mentors in the lab who had already gone through years of training and learning, and yet their hard work and research findings were seemingly hardly recognized by the public. These were the individuals who had persevered through and outsmarted many of the obstacles in conducting science. They remained standing to create and perform research that literally added to the knowledge of humankind, and yet people (for the most part) were and are not interested.

While this may seem like a subjective observation, there are in fact very famous examples where this disinterest on the part of the general public and a lack of effective and attention-holding communication on the part of the scientist resulted in very dire consequences. Gregor Mendel, the now-famous friar who characterized genetic heredity, worked better with peas than with people. As a result, although Mendel actually published his work in 1866, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that his work was rediscovered and then utilized by others. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that his work with cross-fertilization in plants was actually published in a journal. He made no other known attempts to publicize his work; however, and as a result his work lied dormant for over 16 years.

In another instance, the Scottish botanist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1920, and yet the antibiotic was only put to use in the 1940s when it too was rediscovered. If a discovery is made but the public or larger scientific community is unaware of it, does it matter? The purpose of research is to make an impact, and without communication, that is not possible. The cost of Mendel’s lost work is that the field of evolutionary genetics is 40 years behind what it could have been. The cost of rediscovering penicillin after World War II is the millions of lives lost to bacterial infections that were treatable by penicillin.

There are many ways for scientists to communicate their message: being interviewed, giving talks, blogging, posting images, and using other social media platforms. All are acceptable forms of storytelling, which some may consider the heart of being a scientist. The various platforms serve different purposes, and this must be kept in mind when reaching out to the lay public. In considering the pathways in which science is most impactful to a larger audience, it is helpful to understand the general (and simplified) process in which policy changes are made.

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Intermediate interpreters often do not read scientific journals as their primary source of information. They are composed of too much jargon and are too technical – not to mention the lack of access to journals for the average person. Where then, do they hear about our research? Often times, the answer is the news. And how does your research make the news? By talking to a journalist.

The term “journalist” may be associated with a few notions that many scientists want to steer clear from – controversy, oversimplification, or miscommunication. And while journalists are not your friends and may not necessarily be “on your side,” they represent important connections to decision makers and the public. To have a successful interview, it’s important to understand what the interviewer is looking for. To start with, always give the bottom line first. Explain why your research matters, and why your research is different from previous studies. Then lay out the plot of your story to support and explain what’s going on.

Journalists often do not have extensive knowledge in your area of research, and it can be extremely useful to frame your work in the context of a mystery. What is the main question? Who are your characters? What are the plot twists? When telling your tale, however, it can be easy to fall into the trap of being overly detailed. This is where succinct preparation beforehand can make all the difference. Prepare (a maximum of) three main points that you want to get across.

When conveying your three main takeaways, it is important to strike a balance between what you are saying and how you are saying it. Although accuracy is important, many scientists tend to get carried away in being correct without focusing enough on conveying information in an easy-to-understand format. Be very careful in using jargon and take the time to explain what those words may mean to you, and make use of metaphors to paint a picture of the concept you are trying to explain.

Being a scientist, you will always be busy. You may not always have the leisure to devote as much time as you would like in preparation for an interview. We must remember, however, that communication is as much as a part of being a scientist as is grant writing, lab work, or data analysis. Rather than dreading an interview, view it for what it really is – an opportunity and an outlet for your research to leave the lab and make an impact. It is our great social responsibility to give back to others all that we have learned. Whatever your medium – graphs, numbers, images, pathways – we are storytellers. Go and tell your story.


The art of scientific storytelling