Don't Be Such A Scientist #2: Be more imaginative
Some notes on status and rapport

Don't Be Such A Scientist #3: Tell stories

Storytelling extends the 'arouse and fulfil' principle explored in the last posting. 

Randy Olson: "With good storytelling you end up both arousing and fulfilling at the same time, which allows you to sustain interest over much larger amounts of material."

Olson suggests that successful stories rely on two elements:

  • the structure of the story (objectively analysable); and
  • the characters in the story (more subjective, but also deeper, more memorable).

Although character is powerful and memorable, the true magic of a story is in its structure.

So, here are three ideas for transforming your material into a story.

  1. Explore the structure.
  2. Find the myth.
  3. Focus on specifics.


1.  Explore the structure.

The core of a good story is the source of tension or conflict.  Every story follows the same basic dynamic structure (it’s a structure because it has a shape; it’s dynamic because that shape can alter to adapt to different circumstances).

  1. Set up the situation.
  2. Create a problem within the situation: something that complicates the situation interestingly – it creates tension or the potential for conflict.
  3. Explore ways of releasing the tension/resolving the conflict/removing or solving the problem.  Make success uncertain.
  4. Present the solution to release the tension, resolve the conflict and solve the problem.

I use the old Roman motto, SPQR, as a mnemonic for this structure.

  1. Situation
  2. Problem
  3. Question
  4. Response or ResolutionSPQR

This structure is also known as Freytag's Triangle.




And you can find out more (including who Freytag was)  hereor here.

A scientific example of this structure might go like this:

  1. Situation: set up the subject.
  2. Problem: give the situation a twist.
  3. Question: explore ways to untwist it and reveal a possible solution.
  4. Response: weave it all together to show that the solution works.

Olson's own example goes like this.

"[Situation]I study a starfish on the California coast: [Problem]the only species that spawns in the dead of winter.  [Question]I thought it might be due to predators of the eggs being less common at that time of year, then |I thought it was due to the best timing for the spring algae bloom, but now it looks like [Response] it probably has something to do with a seasonal migration of the starfish, which is what I now study - the way that spawning season might be related to adult movements of starfish."


2.  Find the myth

The most effective stories are mythic.  They simplify action into a structure that resonates with the audience because it touches something deeply shared within us.  Part of the skill in telling scientific stories is finding some core structure that resonates with the audience.

Olson: "Audiences have a set number of stories that they like to hear and that they want storytellers to tell.  If you can lock onto one of those set stories, all of a sudden everyone can really start to have fun."

According to Christopher Booker, there are Seven Basic Plots:
  • overcoming the monster;
  • rags to riches;
  • the quest;
  • voyage and return;
  • comedy;
  • tragedy; and
  • rebirth.
Maybe.  I don't know Booker's book, but I'll happily start with those seven.  Find out more about the seven plots here.


Try turning the material into one of those plots and see what happens.


Focus on specifics

The power of good storytelling rests in the specifics. Everything you say should be tied to specific, concrete instances.  Use concrete nouns and good, simple, strong, vivid verbs.

No generalizations, no nominalizations, no abstractions. (No words ending in -ion!)


A digression

Tying storytelling back to arousing attention, I read a letter in New Scientist while I was writing this posting, which relates stories - and indeed all art - to the idea of seeking attention.  The letter refers to Brian Boyd's book, On the Origin of Stories.



From the Harvard University Press page about the book: "The need to hold an audience’s attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers."








Being accurate and being boring

The two great dangers of storytelling are becoming inaccurate, and becoming boring.  To a scientist, nothing is worse than inaccuracy. The problem is that too much accuracy becomes boring.  And to an audience, nothing is worse than boredom.

So every act of scientific storytelling has to balance the conflicting imperatives of being accurate and interesting. Ideally, of course, your story will be both. But being accurate doesn't have to mean being exhaustively and exhaustingly comprehensive; and being interesting doesn't have to mean 'dumbing down' or becoming simplistic.

'Dumbing down' means watering down or removing information on the assumption that your audience is too stupid to understand it. It's closely related to the arch-sin of 'rising above', which means condescending to the audience and results from the same assumption. (I actually saw a scientist at a recent public presentation put up a slide and say: "Now, you're not going to understand this.")  We'll look at 'rising above' in more detail in the next posting.

'Being concise', in contrast, means conveying your information in the fewest possible steps or elements, on the assumption that less detail will result in a thing of elegance and beauty.

Olson:  "It is a basic conversational skill to be able to listen while talking so you can recognize when you're boring your audience. A lot of intellectuals, once again preconditioned for too many years of lecturing to prearoused students, have lost this ability to self-edit."

PS Olson mentions in his storytelling chapter an interesting paper by Peter Medawar called 'Is the scientific paper a fraud?'  It relates only tangentially to Olson's theme in the chapter, but Medawar's thesis is entertaining and provocative.  Medawar: "The scientific paper in its orthodox form does embody a totally mistaken conception, even a travesty, of the nature of scientific thought."


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