The Art of Scientific Storytelling

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When you spend the majority of your life at the bench, you might sometimes forget how to tell your story so that you can spend even more time at the bench through grants and papers. Here is a look at what steps you can take to present your research in a dynamic and impactful manner.

Science is neither art nor story. According to the traditional academic viewpoint, it is a rigid set of facts and figures. What if I told you that the art of scientific storytelling is a crucial element for the advancement our field? This may lead you to label me as crazy or think that I am not a real scientist. Perhaps I have been cast in a science-themed reality show called Science or Fake News.

A fundamental barrier exists for translating ideas into solutions: the frequent inability of scientists and other “geeks” to deliver information in a way that is impactful, relevant, and inspires action.

I am actually a card-carrying scientist, an expert in human nutrition and metabolism. After 20 years of traversing the worlds of healthcare and science, I realized that a fundamental barrier exists for translating ideas into solutions: the frequent inability of scientists and other “geeks” to deliver information in a way that is impactful, relevant, and inspires action. This led me to an important conviction. By sharing my gift of translating complex scientific information in a way that is accessible to a broad range of audiences, I can exponentially increase my contributions to science by helping others catalyze their ideas. To accomplish that, I launched a brand called Geeks that Speak®️ to inspire and empower scientists to become powerful storytellers. I believe there are three reasons we need to embrace the art of storytelling within our daily science life.

The standard academic box pushes us to think mainly about one person: me, me, me! What do I need to focus on to advance my own ideas? What do I need to do to advance my own career (i.e., get papers and grants)? This leads us to frequently approach storytelling with an inward focus. We create presentations based on the data we feel is most important and we shove as much data as possible in the time allocated for our talks. If we instead tell stories with an outward focus, we will convey our ideas in meaningful ways that make an impact. This increases our chances of reaching the next member of our study team, an investor, or our next boss.

When we build our own personal science story, we tend to be laser focused on a specific narrow topic. That is how the most successful scientists have made their mark. In this era of global reach and transdisciplinary science, stories should be built with the intent of solving an important problem. This allows diverse groups of scientists and innovators to bring their best to the table to accomplish a shared goal. By doing this, we change the narrative away from the narrow and predictable and towards solution-based approaches that require out-of-the-box innovation. This will lead to ideas that go far beyond those tucked away in the corners of our laboratories.

By far the most important reason why scientific storytelling is not just a trend or an unnecessary waste of time is simple yet profoundly relevant in today’s society: Scientific knowledge is powerful. It has the power to heal, the power to give hope, the power to solve the most important problems facing our society. And with great power, comes great responsibility. We have a duty to share what we know. When we do this, we advance our career trajectory, accelerate innovation, and empower society to make better decisions about their lives.

We have a duty to share what we know. When we do this, we advance our career trajectory, accelerate innovation, and empower society to make better decisions about their lives.

We live in an era of abundant information. Any question can be answered with a search engine that resides in a device that fits into the palm of our hand. This apparent era of knowledge that we live in comes with a huge caveat. Volume of information does not equate to accuracy of information. People today are hungry for truth. Who better to share that truth than those of us who spend our careers in search of it?

To improve the reach of our brilliance, there are three key steps to take:

  • First, focus on developing a talk that meets the needs of your audience: What do they know and what additional knowledge can you impart that will be beneficial to them?
  • The second has to do less with what you say and more with how you say it. Body language elements such as gestures and eye contact are some of the non-verbal aspects of presentations that elevate the storytelling game.
  • Finally, crafting the message with basic elements of traditional storytelling allows the audience to follow the main points with ease. When conveying scientific information, key points should be unambiguously conveyed and build on one another with smooth transitions in between.

You probably have your own hypothesis on the value of spending time refining your storytelling skills. If so, do an experiment to test your hypothesis. Implement some of my recommendations and gather data on how the presentation was received, how you felt after you delivered the information, and the benefits of moving away from “I just want to get this over with” and towards “How can I convey information in a meaningful way to inspire action?” Do it three times to reach statistical significance and let me know what you conclude.

I am confident the experiment will lead you to a different attitude towards storytelling that will enrich your career and broaden your impact on the process of discovery.

Corbin is a faculty investigator at the Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes, Orlando, Fla., focusing on nutrition, enterohepatic metabolism, and the mechanisms that drive individual susceptibility to metabolic diseases. She is also the owner and chief geek of Geeks That Speak®, a company dedicated to maximizing the impact of science through the art of storytelling. She can be reached at geeksthatspeak@gmail.com.

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