The Art of Storytelling in Science

By Keegan Sentner

We’re lucky to feature this guest blog post by conservationist, science communicator, and science journalist Keegan Sentner. In this article, you’ll learn about ways that storytelling, humankind’s greatest tool, can help effectively communicate science and improve scientific literacy.

photo of a nature scene -- a body of water with a mountainous backdrop
Photo by Bailey Zindel on Unsplash

The story of Persephone in Greek mythology is one of the most recognizable stories in human history. Persephone, the daughter of the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility, is kidnapped into the underworld and becomes the wife of Hades, the God of the Underworld. In ancient Greek culture, this myth was the Greek’s means of explaining the change in climate that resulted in the changing of the seasons. 

The story of Persephone is only one of many to utilize storytelling to help audiences understand a complex subject or idea. For thousands of years, humanity has used the art of written, visual, or oral storytelling to craft narratives that help people understand the world.  Science is a way of interpreting the natural world. So how do we explain the science?

The Need for Better Communication in Science

Scientists are trained to create and test hypotheses that reveal truths about the world. They believe that science is the pursuit of an understanding of our world through fact and evidence. Yet, most of the time, when communicating science to a general audience, the facts don’t speak for themselves. 

Our current model of science communication focuses on facts and data. While incredibly crucial to the scientific process, the raw scientific data can be hard to decipher for people who are untrained in scientific thinking. 

The scientific process is a story. Science storytelling is essential for meaningful and effective #SciComm.

Analyzing research and data critically are skill sets scientists spend years learning. Asking a general audience to interpret science information the way scientists do can often lead readers to feel frustrated, annoyed, or dismissive of the information. An overly scholarly approach to science communication can often feel tedious or boring, even if the research is groundbreaking or world changing.

One of the biggest challenges in science communication is connecting with the audience. It’s easy to think everyone has the opportunity to care about the science. But why should an individual outside of the field of biology care about the newest discovery of a species in the Amazon? As researchers involved in the study, we may answer, “because it’s important.”

The science may be important, but the audience may not understand why. This is where there is often a disconnect in science communication. We tell people it’s important, but this is inherently subjective. We all have different priorities, interests, and ideas about what’s important. Our job as scientists is to communicate the significance of the work and spark the interest of the audience. It is our job to show them why the science is important.

To do this properly, we have to take some notes from our friends, the ancient Greeks. 

What is Science Storytelling?

Going back to the story of Persephone from Greek mythology, it was said that she resided as the Queen of the Underworld during the winter and resided with her mother during the spring and summer. In the winter, Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was distraught and refused to tend the harvest. However, Demeter was happy in the spring and summer, and allowed all of the earth to prosper and be fertile. This story was the ancient Greeks’ way to explain the changing of the seasons. The tale of Persephone made the concepts understandable and allowed audiences to feel connected to the characters, emotions, and information in the story. 

In science, we can use similar mechanisms to help communicate complex scientific information to the broader public. Storytelling is defined as the act of telling, writing, or portraying stories to an audience. In science, using a storyline that connects all elements of factual evidence is called “science storytelling.” In our example above, the ancient Greeks contrived an exciting story to help explain the reasoning behind a natural cycle and biological process. They crafted a narrative that explained a complex natural phenomenon through a coherent storyline with relatable characters and interesting settings. 

In science storytelling, the writer crafts a narrative around the process behind the research, rather than simply relating a series of facts. Let’s say an astrophysics team recently discovered a new planet using complex physical equations. This forms the basis of our story. We can begin to interweave a storyline around the findings that utilize the characters involved in the discovery, the setting of the study, the emotions behind the findings, and other storytelling elements that allow the audience to feel connected to the discovery.  

This use of storytelling gives the audiences a chance to connect with more relatable aspects of the science, while still communicating the crucial information from the research. From there, we can entice the reader to act, providing more in-depth information or inspiring them to seek further research on their own. 

Research: A Science Story

An important element of science storytelling is the ability to craft a meaningful connection with the reader. As humans, we love stories because we love to feel personally connected to different perspectives or ideas about the world. Stories also allow us to maintain a sense of control over these thoughts and ideas, providing a meaningful connection with things we may not have accepted or previously understood.

For example, imagine you have discovered a new species of bacteria that can have profound effects on the medical industry in treating a rare disease. The research and findings are monumental. They have the ability to change the world and can save thousands of lives. The study has the power to inspire massive change, but it isn’t easily understandable, and a general reader isn’t likely to care about the findings. 

This is where we need to develop a story to connect the audience with the work. To do this, as scientists, we must make the research exciting and personal. In storytelling, this is predominantly done through the main characters. In this example, the main character might be a patient with the rare disease who has no current treatment options. It becomes the writer’s job to explain the new therapy in development and how it can help the patient live a healthier life. In other words, to get a broader audience to understand the research, we have to give them a reason to connect with the purpose behind the science. 

As scientists, instead of communicating the research with intense scientific jargon and raw data or figures, use your own personal story to get the audience involved. For example, if you’re communicating your own work, you can tell your audience about the challenges you faced during the research process. Tell them about the time you spilled your coffee on the specimens and had to restart an entire section of the experiment. Share your history with disease and how its influence on your life led you into the field of medicine. Let your readers see what you see in your work. Show them your passion, frustrations, and the blood, sweat, and tears you poured into this research. 

In summary, when communicating science, storytelling can be very powerful. It makes the science personal: giving the audience a reason to care, and helping them understand why your work is important.

The Bottom Line

Scientists must find ways to effectively communicate the importance and ramifications of their work. Science communication doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s something many of us have been doing our entire lives. If we can begin to find ways to pair the art of storytelling with science and research, then we can start communicating our work better and improving scientific literacy on a massive scale. 

Storytelling has always been humanity’s greatest asset. For thousands of years, it has been the primary means of interpreting and communicating with the world around us. Just as the ancient Greeks used the story of Persephone to explain the harvest seasons, scientists can use storytelling to communicate our current understanding of the natural world. Share the story behind your work. Let people see the passion, emotion, and reasoning behind the research. Tell your story. I am sure it’s a good one. 

photo of keegan sentner

Keegan Sentner is a journalist, conservationist, and communications specialist based in California. He aims to pair the art of storytelling with the world of conservation, climate, and science. Keegan graduated with a degree in wildlife biology from Colorado State University. He has since worked in journalism, wildlife conservation, and science communications. His work has recently been featured in Earth Island Journal, Journal del Pacifico, and Climate Conscious. He is also the founder of a conservation storytelling collective, Conservation At Large.  Keegan’s career focuses on communicating the planet’s pressing environmental issues in unique and inspiring ways. Check out his other work here.


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