For most of us, Dan Brown’s latest intrigue-riddled bestseller is a thrilling piece of fiction — a series of engaging events creatively packed into a fast-paced mystery and action-laden page-turner. Pick any of your favourite writers for that matter: We read short stories and novels in the park on a sunny day, on the commute to our research centres, even on the beach and, then, talk at length about them over coffee, shopping, even at Christmas dinner. Why then do we shy away from masterfully narrating the history (the word “story” has the same root as “history”) of your own scientific findings? Is science a banality, full of platitudes? Is fiction really more captivating than fact?
Science communication is the art of disseminating your science in an accurate yet compelling manner. However, for many amongst us it remains near the top of “non-scientific obligations of real scientists”. But the fog of unattainability that obscures us from sharing our science freely and naturally is easily dispelled. Let me tell you a story… Once upon a time, long ago, humans discovered fire. Then they decided to tell others that they had found this crackling wonder of heat and light. And so it continues, right up to this little story of mine that you’ve just read.
At the very core of human behaviour is an insatiable desire “to know”. We all want to hear the logs of wood, crackling in that same primitive fire, as we are transported, neatly seated in a half-circle, by the dreamlike words of a storyteller on a cold winter’s night. For millennia, human beings have accrued and disseminated knowledge by telling and retelling of old tales. In fact, in Middle English, the Greek derived eidenai (“to know”) was not distinguished from “story”. Later, in the Renaissance period, several inventors, scientists and philosophers used parables, paintings and poetry seamlessly with their scientific endeavours. At the height of intellectual endeavour, polymaths represented the shining kaleidoscope of skills that the human mind can master. As the wheels of time turned, the Enlightenment, industrial revolution and modern technology led to an imbalance in the scale of arts versus sciences. What followed was the demand for hyper-specialisation and a denigration of the arts as a frivolous, bohemian, even hedonistic enterprise, counter-weighed against the serious and utilitarian power of rational reasoning and cool logic.
Science prides itself for its rigour and objectivity. Caught in this insidious rift, we lost sight of the commonality between two primordial human traits: science (knowledge acquired) and stories (the very desire to know and share). Fact versus fiction. So, do your eyes light up when a child, a friend, or even a stranger, says “tell me a story”? What if you could harness this very shiver of excitement to share your science with a larger audience? If you reflect carefully, we are all natural storytellers (and story-listeners to — something to calm those nerves before facing any audience). People crave sensation, shock and surprise; they are hungering to be told something new, fascinating and exciting!
While we may not all be great novelists, poets, filmmakers or public speakers, we all have experienced the crux of a narration: sitting across from another human being and recounting a tale that moved us, and in doing so, hope that it moves them too. Think about it: telling science stories is not so different from telling a short story or sharing a fictional, imaginary world. You might say, “I’m a quantum physicist and not JK Rowling, thank you very much. I don’t know how to spin a yarn around my research”. To which I would say, “Yes you do! You’ve already done, multiple times in your scientific training, albeit for a different audience”.
Academic science relies on publishing (think of all those long hours spent drafting your thesis and manuscripts) in scientific and technical journals. The process of writing a manuscript, nonetheless, relies heavily on elements of prose fiction. “Sell your story” is the mantra that all students are told. The choice of words here is not entirely coincidental. The best scientific papers, besides the quality of their research, are often the ones in which a seamless narrative leads us (the readers) into a world of rational, hypothesis-driven experiments and results. You pre-empt the experiment, and voila, the authors tell you that that is precisely what they did next! By the time you reach the end, you feel the cosy warm glow of having digested a wonderfully told tale.
While academic writing continues to be fettered by the framework of an impersonal, evidence-based writing formats, science communication for a wider audience has scope for creative liberties. In doing so, what changes is the not just your audience but the intention behind sharing your science. Just as you would not tell your grandmother a story in the same way as you would your best friend, we need to adapt the narrative structure.
Here, four central tools of fiction come to in handy:
The choice of your platform is probably the most critical decision for telling a good story. Will it be a blog post (like this one), a YouTube video, a Facebook page, an Instagram story, a live public engagement event (in a pub or in a children’s school?), a museum exhibition or an open-house at your organisation? Instead of paralyzing in the face of overwhelming options available today, you can begin by asking Why? Why are you telling this story? Distil the scientific message you want to convey into a single word or sentence. Stories show us that the form is instructed by the concept and is spurred on by your initial idea. Fiction that works as a short story would not serve the same purpose as a novel, a poem or even a novella. Once you know the specific content you wish to communicate, again ask Why? Why choose one social media platform versus another? Why are you targeting an online audience and not engaging in face-to-face interaction? Enumeration of pros and cons is a useful exercise to narrow down how you will, then, move on to tell the story.
2. Language & Dialogue
Now that you know why you are telling your story and which outlet you want to tailor it for, step back, zoom out and separate yourself from the finer details of the content. As scientists, experimentalists and researchers, there can be a nagging inclination to convey every singular detail of the scientific process. However, detail needs to be constrained and conveyed with language that is accessible, engaging and entertaining. The best stories do not necessarily contain the most verbose, florid prose. Think about the essence of the story you are trying to communicate: what is the opening, middle and the denouement? How would you like to have heard this story as a child, a young adult or any other non-specialist? Scientific integrity and accuracy need not be compromised in the styling of your narrative. What matters, though, is that jargon and esoteric information do not overshadow the receptive joy of any novice or dilettante audience.
Many writers claim “character is plot”. You might ask — Who is a character in non-fiction, scientific communication? Why, you, to begin with. You are the narrative voice (first person or third person, which one would you opt for?). As with language, the characters of any story are not isolated blocks but form part of a cogent whole. In telling a science story, think carefully about the events and players that will stand out and animate the retelling of your research. The research subjects, the experimental models, the instrumentation, the researchers and the moving, buzzing actors in science (be they atoms, or cells, or electromagnetic waves) all deserve their time on-stage. Your audience wants to know who did what, why, how but also what are they like, what do they consist of and how do they exist? The more you draw on these traits, the more relatable your research will become.
If story is a sequence of falling dominos then plot is the decision of placing the dominos in that sequence. Plot is what brought you to Dan Brown and Harry Potter, remember? When you start to plan your science story, simplify your goals and aim to convey one or two key points in a coherent, unembellished narrative arc. Answer the 5 Ws: when, why, what, where and who, before you get to the how of your scientific findings. People will appreciate a story if you provide them context early-on in your delivery of it. Focus on aspects that will stand out, draw in, build suspense or excitement and interest around key questions that your work addresses. Remember that while plotting, you might have to change the through-line of the true order of events to make it more appealing. Once more, communicating your key messages clearly and creatively is more important than chronological accuracy, as long scientific data are not misrepresented. Depending on your goals, it is also worth leaving room for questions, inspiration and further exploration for a non-specialist audience.
In thinking of science, we dissociate our creative, imaginative faculties from the milieu. Or worse, we claim to be bereft of them altogether. Nonetheless, the two are evolutionarily hard-wired and inextricably linked in our minds. I propose that we approach science communication with the wonder and curiosity of a storyteller. A word of caution: there should be vainglorious presumption that what we are attempting is a flippant activity because it has moved science from outside the laboratory into the halls of inspired narration. Despite some vitriol against “storytelling” as a general strategy for communication (https://vimeo.com/98368484), there is much to be learned from our love for awe-inspiring, stirring stories.
Even if your own research seems prosaic, matter-of-fact and lacking in imaginative flourishes — fear not! At the heart of every research experiment, project, publication or discovery lies a dormant story waiting to be unravelled and recounted. A great deal of pressure and confusion surrounding science communication and outreach can be alleviated if we only pause to consider the story we want to tell others. If told simply, passionately and vividly, you will achieve the communication goals you set for yourself. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? So, while you’re at it, tell me your story — your science story!