The art of science storytelling (part one)

By Kyle Gillespie

I hadn't planned on being there. In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable as the glare of the stage lights shone down upon me and a deep queasiness set in. This was not the type of scientific presentation I had grown accustomed to. No fancy figures, tables, or PowerPoint slides. No scientific jargon or mention of statistical models. Just words. A story describing a day in the field and the creatures I study. I was way out of the comfort zone in which I have lived for the past several years. There was no two ways about it — standing on that stage in front of the many expectant faces, I was nervous. 

Five days earlier I'd arrived ahead of the Third International Marine Conservation Congress for a scientific storytelling workshop. I was feeling rather smug. For every university science student, the elements of a science story are drilled in early and often: introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion. I was very familiar with the IMRDC (Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion, Conclusion) model. I knew my way around a science story. Things fell apart quickly for me on that first day of the workshop. It soon became clear that this system that we as scientists hold sacred will not be the tool that engages the decision makers and the general public. Don't get me wrong, IMRDC is an exceedingly important tool for communicating with fellow scientists, but it alone will not save the world.

Scientists need to be better storytellers. As marine conservation biologists we're in a privileged position: we have interesting stories about exciting marine locations or about the species we study. But we tend to go about explaining them in the most boring way possible: salinity this or turbidity that — hardly things that a policy maker or lay person wants to hear about. Heck, hardly things I want to hear about! Storytelling paints scenes in the mind and creates a connection between the listener and the cast of characters. Engaging the senses, having a story arc and creating a sense of empathy will help engage people in marine issues that are so often beneath the waves, out of sight and out of mind.

Back on the IMCC stage, I took a deep breath and began to speak. Using words and phrases I would never dream of using in a scientific paper I began to weave a story. The trepidation that I had been feeling quickly melted away as I saw people's faces light up on ways that even my most well thought out scientific figures never could. I was sold. Expect more stories from this guy. To be continued...

Kyle Gillespie is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.