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Science Communication: Narratively Speaking

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Science  06 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6163, pp. 1168
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6163.1168-a

In the News story by J. Cohen “Great presenters: lighting up the auditorium” (special section on Communication in Science, 4 October, p. 78), Bonnie Bassler includes in her rules of presentation, “Tell stories.” As a scientist turned filmmaker who specializes in making content meaningful and memorable, I could not agree more. But how? The power of storytelling rests in the specifics, so to answer this question, let me tell you a story.

In the fall of 2013, I was recruited to give a makeover to the plenary panel discussion for the 2013 meeting of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF). The organizer told me that she wanted me to do my “story thing.”

Within two days, the other two presenters and I were embroiled in an e-mail battle—neither of them wanted to change their standard presentations. So I quit. But then they reconsidered, kindly assuring me that they had given enough successful presentations in their careers and could afford one debacle.

CREDIT: AAAS

By shifting from e-mail to telephone meetings, we immediately found common ground, which grew into friendship. Acting as a stage director, I asked them—the actors—to present their material to me, and I then began shaping the new structure and focus.

We changed the title from “Responding to Sea Level Rise” to “Sea Level Rise: New, Certain, and Everywhere.” We then set about crafting three “stories” around these keywords by rearranging the content to create better narrative structure. We took material that began as a list of facts (in the style of And, And, And), and we molded it into stories using the universal narrative template: And, But, Therefore (ABT) (1). Once the “But” and “Therefore” are added [a technique lifted from “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker (1)], the format takes a shape that conveys tension and resolution—the crucial elements of a great story. For example, we streamlined the facts supporting new sea level rise into the premise: “Sea level was relatively stable for 8000 years AND coastal communities were built on the assumption of stability, BUT over the past 150 years the level has been rising. THEREFORE, a new approach to coastline management is needed.” To further engage our audience, we asked scientists in advance to contribute thoughts and photographs in ABT style through the CERF Web site (2), and we incorporated their submissions into the presentation. A month later, our plenary panel packed the 1000-seat ballroom at CERF and received rave reviews (watch the video at http://vimeopro.com/cerfvideo/cerf2013).

My fellow presenters and I learned a lot from this. First, it is possible for an old dog to teach old dogs new tricks. Second, you get back what you invest; we had four lengthy conference calls and two rehearsals before the event. None of us had ever devoted this much effort to a presentation. Third, everyone can and should incorporate narrative structure to their science communication endeavors.

Scientists must overcome the problem of “storyphobia.” Recent research shows that narrative structure enhances brain activity (3). We have created a world that is awash in information, the meaning of which could be lost if we don't work to process it through narrative structure. It is essential for today's world of rapid communication and must become second nature to scientists to ensure effective communication.

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