Selling stories 2

by: in: Education, Researchon December 8, 2016

In my last blog post, I wrote about the issue of fitting a selection of scientific observations into seemingly plausible stories concluding that it is better to focus on data/content rather than the story. Now I want to pick up that story selling theme, but explore it from a different perspective. I start with challenging my own viewpoint by claiming: We need more stories in science! Yes, this reads like a blatant contradiction, but it is not, as I will make clear in a moment.

Let me first explain how come I again spin a story about stories. A few weeks ago, I attended a course for PhD students on voice training and presentation skills, held by Janneke van Woerden and Michael Berndonner at the University of Zurich. It was an excellent experience with lots of practice and open discussions, and offered some of those painful but revealing moments where you notice all those quirks you accumulated over time. (How little have I ever paid attention to proper posture, breathing and use of voice, but how big the impact on the audience is when I do!)

In summary, this course was about the skillful wrapping of scientific content for a specific audience, and we learned about several elements that play a role in winning one’s audience: body language, eye contact, gestures, rhythm and speed, the speech itself, the presentation material, and, among many other factors: stories! Frankly, I cringed when I heard Michael saying “Science needs more stories!”. But from an audience’s perspective, he has a point. Humans are arguably more social than rational beings. Naturally, we (at least most of us) comprehend and memorize abstract ideas more easily when they are embedded in a narrative with a spatial and temporal context. The effect is even stronger when contents can be associated with emotions. Thus why not wrap scientific content into a carefully prepared story that stimulates the listenership also emotionally? An anecdote to emphasize the relevance of one’s work for example? An analogy or allegory to describe how different entities interact in a complex system?

Scientific contexts are inherently abstract, and their communication requires a common basis: a set of well-defined terms and concepts. Although people in academia are generally very knowledgeable, I claim that too often we, as presenters, overrate what our audiences actually know about our field and specialization. As a result, we might not reach our audience because its members do not understand our work. This becomes painfully clear when the audience are asked what they were actually able to take home from a scientific presentation…

Of course, one can object that scientific communication should be kept free from emotional banter and stylistic frippery. On the other hand, conveying scientific knowledge should be efficient. Think of a lecture room full of students or an auditorium at a conference. Any inefficiency in communication scales drastically. In that regard, wrapping thoughts into stories as a stylistic means for clearer communication is, in my view, absolutely justified. Of course, this requires reductions and simplifications that, in my, experience necessitate quite some reasoning and a very good understanding of the topic.

In a discussion with Michael, he said that the use of stories (language in general), is like a knife: it can be used for good or bad, depending on the intentions of the person who handles it. If the intention with storytelling is to impress people or to convince the audience of a distorted view of reality, it definitely is problematic. But if the intention is to efficiently communicate complex contexts (while always stating the simplifications that were made), I think it is an effective means for reaching one’s audience.



Further reading:

  • Y. Katz. Against storytelling of scientific results. 2013. Nature Methods. DOI
  • M.F. Dahlstrom. Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. 2014. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. DOI
Selling stories 2

Norman Juchler

Norman joined The Interface Group in June 2015 as a PhD student. He has a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering ETH and reentered academia after five years working as software engineer for a Zurich based start-up.

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