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Humans are captivated by stories. They foster cooperation, pass on social norms, and honour those who are good at telling stories.

At Econnect, we like to harness the power of a good story in our work. We use elements of storytelling in many different ways: from interviewing people to write case studies of best practice, to developing interpretive information about different topics for visitor centres. We’re currently helping Pacific Islands communicators tell their stories about the Pacific tuna fisheries. Stories aplenty!

This month, we give some of our tips on Storytelling Science:

We hope you enjoy this newsletter, and welcome your feedback.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle RiedlingerMadeleine Stirrat & Jas Smith.

Storytelling engages audiences in science

By Jenni Metcalfe

Scientists are often wary of telling stories. Surely the facts are enough? And doesn’t storytelling twist the truth, sensationalise or trivialise the science?

My answer to those questions is an emphatic no! Rather, storytelling has the power to engage a non-scientific audience in the science in a way that the bare facts cannot.

Science stories can be told so that the facts are conveyed accurately, and also put into a social context that relates with the audience.

The best thing is that people remember stories –  and usually forget facts within 24 hours.

Here are five ways in which science stories can engage an audience:

  1. Include people and their voices to engage your audience, e.g. quote the scientists and the people who will benefit from the research.
  2. Use simple, direct and active language and avoid bureaucratic speak. A sentence such as ‘We need to enhance our sector-relevant support for a suite of integrated risk assessment tools’ is dense, not enjoyable to read, and vague.
  3. Illustrate your story with specific examples, e.g. the sentence above could be rewritten to: ‘We will be supporting wheat growers to use seasonal climate forecasting tools to make decisions about planting, fertiliser application, and harvesting.’ Using concrete terms helps your reader understand precisely what you mean.
  4. Be visual and paint pictures with your words by using metaphors and analogies.
  5. Show, don’t tell. For example, instead of saying ‘I was so excited with the results of the clinical trial’, describe what happened to make you feel excited: ‘After spending six weeks tracking 120 patients, and not knowing who had the new drug and who didn’t, I could feel my heart rate increase as our team unravelled the results.’

Using social media for science storytelling

By Michelle Reidlinger

This infographic contains tips on using social media for powerful science storytelling.

Telling upside down science stories in the media
By Toss Gascoigne

Sometimes in our media skills workshops I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Image: Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

It’s to illustrate the difference between the way scientists tell a story, and the approach the media takes. Scientists often talk about their research in a chronological way, or as Alice in Wonderland put it:

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

So, to find out what happens in accounts of research, readers should generally turn to the last page.

The media though, likes to start stories with the most important and interesting facts, and then add detail. So:

A fire burns out the Brisbane CBD (paragraph 1)
Three people were killed and 42 suffered smoke inhalation (paragraph 2, etc.)
Damage bill will run into the billions
Iconic buildings destroyed
Traffic chaos as CBD streets closed
Eighteen fire engines race to the scene
Cause as yet unknown but electrical fault suspected
Nothing chronological here. This method of storytelling supports the ‘flit and sip’ approach taken by many readers of the media. Their eyes slide over the headlines, stop when something attracts their attention, and they read until they’ve seen enough or get bored.
It also supports the way stories are fitted into the newspaper, web site or broadcast. Journalists will over-write, providing 400 words when there’s only space for 300. For the subeditor putting a page together, the solution is simple: cut off the excess words, starting at the bottom.

The story should still make perfect sense wherever the cut is made, as a 6-paragraph story or a 10-paragraph story. It’s just less detailed.

Another way to tell a story is to begin with the problem. A science journalist once described a perfect newspaper story: a problem, the solution, a photo and a graph.

But there is power in the Little-Red-Riding-Hood approach. It still has the capacity to fascinate readers or listeners, especially when combined with other classic elements like the ‘Rule of Three’.

There is a reason fairies always grant three wishes, or traditional tales have three parts or three main characters (Three Blind Mice, Three Bears, Three Wise Men …). Have you ever heard a story beginning, ‘There were these four blokes who walked into a pub …’?

What’s in a headline – storytelling or swindling?
By Madeleine Stirrat

Marketing and human psychology researchers use a term called the ‘curiosity gap’ to refer to the gap between what a reader knows and what they want to know.

Clickbait headlines exploit the curiosity gap to encourage users to ‘click’. These headlines compel readers to need the rest of the story.

At the bottom of a recent Washington Post article about Facebook’s algorithms to detect clickbait articles, I found a collection of promoted clickbait articles.

Image: The Washington Post

Many of the classic clickbait tropes feature here:

  • how-tos
  • phrases like ‘insanely cool’, ‘shocking’ or ‘can you believe?!’ to pique curiosity
  • playing on the readers’ knowledge deficit – if you know, did you know, you didn’t know – when they are trying to close the curiosity gap.

Others often frame the headline causally, i.e. as a catalyst: guess what happens next?

Clickbait’s defining characteristic is that it is deceptive, sensationalist, or, at best, de-contextualises the topic. These headlines over-promise and under-deliver.

But don’t shy away from using headlines that exploit the curiosity gap. If you’re writing about an experiment, start with the catalyst: ask your audience to guess what happens next. If you’re in mechanics, post how-tos. If you’re in health sciences, ask the reader if they can believe what you’ve found!

There’s nothing deceptive about using these linguistic tools to invite readers in, if the stories you are telling are verifiable and in the public interest. Reclaim the tropes of this sinister-sounding social-media strategy and help beat junk science at its own game.

A story arc can help to structure writing
By Claire Heath

Good science writers often follow a storytelling tradition that comes from fiction writing: the narrative arc.

The narrative (or story) arc is the dramatic path the story follows, and is employed to bring about change. It is used in all sorts of works: novels, television shows, films, plays, comic books, video games, and documentaries.

Audiences enjoy the transformation that takes place – and it helps writers give their stories energy.

The five elements in a narrative arc are:

  • exposition – the introduction, outlining the main characters (who), the setting (where), and the time (when)
  • rising action – some form of conflict that gets the story going (what, why, how), and which involves a precipitating event, a quest begun, surprises, or critical choices to be made
  • climax – the height of tension
  • falling action – the conflict is resolved
  • resolution – loose ends are tied up, and the story concludes.

A good example of a story that follows a narrative arc is how Professor Ian Frazer came to develop the world’s first cancer vaccine and become Australian of the Year. Robyn Williams’ 2008 interview with Frazer follows a story arc:

  • exposition – Frazer’s early years of self-discovery, and beginning to explore immune systems
  • rising action – the spark when Frazer noticed immunity patterns in HIV that others hadn’t seen, which headed him down a path of discovery complete with wrong turns and dead ends; having to learn new skills; the dawning realisation that a vaccine might be possible; and some luck
  • climax – the right technology (polymerase chain reaction) for cloning genes coming about at the right time to validate the team’s experiments, and a legal battle over patents
  • falling action – including the death of one of Frazer’s colleagues, and the production of the vaccine
  • resolution – the use of the vaccine in many parts of the world, and public celebration.

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