By Kevin Ho
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In his book Presenting Science Concisely, Dr. Bruce Kirchoff discusses concrete ways to make science presentations more engaging and impactful for a general audience. We previously discussed Dr. Kirchoff’s philosophy on science storytelling in a previous post. In this post, we review the book and its lessons on science storytelling.
Keep reading for Kevin’s review of the book, including a few lessons he learned about science storytelling that can help scientists and science communicators alike!
What can readers learn about in Presenting Science Concisely?
When trying to present scientific research to a general audience, scientists face many challenges. For one thing, most people do not understand the significance of the research process, or the role of scientists themselves in uncovering and exploring new ideas. As a result, news of scientific discoveries often focus on the results of an experiment rather than the research process. For many lay readers, this means trudging through dry graphs and data. Worse, it can lead to a stereotyping of the research process as a means to an end, rather than a journey in which theories are proven and disproven, in search of scientific truths.
Telling science stories can make an impact with a general audience
In his book Presenting Science Concisely, Dr. Kirchoff seeks to bridge the disconnect between science, scientists, and society.
Kirchoff argues that communicating science to the public involves the art of storytelling: telling stories not just of the scientific discoveries, but of the way that the scientific process works. Kirchoff does this early on by analogizing the scientific research process to that of storytelling. Over the course of the book, he goes into the details of how a scientific story would be structured, what kinds of formats can be used, and how that format can be changed in different contexts. The different story formats Kirchoff discusses in Presenting Science Concisely include 90-second elevator pitches, posters, and the And-But-Therefore (ABT) model of storytelling. He concludes that the formats of these stories should adapt based on the audience you are presenting to and what presentation style you need to employ to make an impact. In his words, “…you are always addressing a specific audience, in a specific venue, on a specific topic.”
Dr. Bruce Kirchoff states that science stories should be tailored to their audience. “You are always addressing a specific audience, in a specific venue, on a specific topic,” he writes. #SciCommTweet
Communicating that science is a process, not just a means to an end
Throughout the book, Dr. Kirchoff’s main argument is that science should be presented as a process of start, middle, and end, rather than just some data showing the final results. This gives the audience a more complete picture of how scientific research looks while inspiring a sense of awe and curiosity about science as well. He elaborates on this process by comparing the process of scientific research to that of a 5-act story you would see in movies or plays, drawing parallels between research and storytelling for each step. He goes into further detail on how each step of the research process can fit into the structure of a story as well as why this story telling method is so important. Furthermore, he also goes into how this storytelling method can be adjusted to different circumstances. Just from the early chapters alone, Bruce Kirchoff presents a novel and interesting way for scientists to present their cutting-edge research to a general audience.
Why should we tell science stories?
Dr. Kirchoff outlines several reasons why scientists should use storytelling principles when relating their research findings. Below, we discuss some of the reasons outlined in the book. (In Presenting Science Concisely, you’ll find more information on ways to tell science stories in oral presentations, conference posters, and more.)
To create a new, more accessible paradigm for science communication
Historically, when scientists present their research to the public, they emphasize the data, particularly the final results and conclusion of their research. For the most part, this is due to scientists’ training; in science, after all, the data (including the way the data was collected) speaks for itself. Although this method is adequate for communicating with fellow scientists, this approach tends to confuse a general audience. Most people without a science background do not understand the underlying principles or process behind a researcher’s work, so using a data-focused approach to converse with the general public only creates more confusion. When scientists only communicate their results, not the overall process, to the general public, the end result is a public and media that primarily understands science in terms of results rather than questions and answers.
Furthermore, as the world learned in the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific discoveries are not set in stone. They can be proven true or refuted in further research. So, understanding the scientific process is key to being able to understand the significance of scientific findings.
Dr. Kirchoff’s response to this problem is to develop a new paradigm for communicating scientific research that is more emotionally resonant and informs regarding the process for general audiences. In this paradigm, the communication of science shifts from simply relaying scientific findings to discussing the way that scientific discoveries are made.
Because stories are an effective means of communication
The key to Kirchoff’s method is to structure the presentation of scientific research to that of a story such as those seen in movies and plays. Structuring science as a story is important because it helps the researcher convey the details of their work in a way that is more interesting.
As Kirchoff writes in Presenting Science Concisely, “We do science to enrich our own understanding. We communicate our results to share that understanding with the world. As meaningful as the results are to us, we find that meaning heightened when we share them with others.”
The purpose of this book is to tell true stories to new audiences. Not only are good storytelling skills useful for scientists explaining their research, they also help science stories resonate with non-scientist audiences. Taking the time to structure science communication as a story can also help science stories stay true to themselves, for example, in media coverage.
Storytelling is especially important for scientists to learn, because most scientists do not become journalists, and therefore, do not learn the requisite storytelling skills that field requires. In our current era of science journalism, science is often communicated to the public by a person focused on answers, which means that greater understanding of the research process can get lost in translation. This creates the impression that scientific research is exclusively done by smart automatons who are focused on data over human interaction. It makes science look impersonal, when in reality, science is a product of the wonderful humans who work together to apply science to understand the world, day in and day out.
Said another way, the scientific process isn’t over once a paper is published. According to Dr. Kirchoff, that’s where science storytelling comes in. Without effective science communication, it will be difficult to develop an appreciation of science among the general public, news media, scientists outside of one’s discipline, and others outside of one’s field.
To fight misinformation by normalizing the scientific process
In the modern day, science shapes how we see the world and how we interact with it. But the cold, data-focused approach to science means that great discoveries can break people’s pre-existing views of the world. For many, this will create friction and result in increased skepticism towards the results and science in general. The solution to this, according to Kirchoff, is to communicate science in a way that is more easily understood by general audiences. Kirchoff’s solution to the rising skepticism towards science is to tell better stories that meet with an audience’s needs. The intention here is to create a redemptive story where the researcher is a hero pushing the frontier of knowledge ever further through their work.
How does the scientific process have the same structure as a story?
Central to Kirchoff’s book is the idea that the process of scientific research is similar to that of a traditional story. Like any other story, there are three parts: beginning, middle, and end. But just like many stories, science is seldom straightforward, and has its fair share of twists and turns. In the case of science, Kirchoff compares the setbacks and rewriting of the hypothesis to that of a plot twist.
Science, like any other story, has a beginning, middle, and end, and its fair share of twists and turns. That’s why applying storytelling techniques can help create better #SciComm.Tweet
Science as a three-act hero’s journey
The particular structure Kirchoff uses to map out the storytelling-style process of scientific communication is the three-act story, like the ones seen in Shakespeare plays.
Kirchoff identifies three parts to a scientific research process that can fit the three-act story narrative for science storytelling.
Part one focuses on the current state of research. This part represents the conventional wisdom that a scientist is used to, prior to finding contradictory evidence: the same way a hero starts off in the ordinary world before setting out on an adventure. Part two is the middle of the story, where the researcher finds contradictory evidence, forms a hypothesis, and conducts experiments to gather data. Kirchoff says that the scientist, in a way, is going on their own adventure to advance their knowledge after finding contradictory evidence. Just like any other story, however, the road to discovery is never that simple or straightforward. The middle can be a long struggle of twists and turns, as new data creates new questions, just as much as it answers old ones. The researcher’s story eventually concludes as they seek to incorporate what they’ve learned into the existing body of work: they either reach a conclusion based on their work, or reframe their hypothesis to take new data into account. Any scientist can tell you that sometimes, the results don’t shape up as expected, or there are no new results – and that’s part of the scientific process, too.
Presenting science as a three-act story emphasizes the process of scientific research rather than just the results. It offers insight to what goes into the research process, how the conclusion is reached, and what questions the conclusion opens up. Furthermore, it humanizes the scientific process, making science more relatable. We see the scientist as a person, not a robot: a hero working to push the boundaries of current knowledge to make the impossible possible. In the current model of science journalism and communication, we primarily tell science stories to relay novel findings. In Kirchoff’s model, even if the main character of our story doesn’t make an earth-shattering scientific breakthrough, one can learn from them, gain insight into the scientific process, and be inspired by the scientist’s journey to gain new knowledge.
Science as a five-act story
Besides comparing the scientific research process to a three act structure, Kirchoff breaks it down further by splitting the middle into three sections, creating a five act structure. These parts are: (1) the current state of knowledge; (2) discovering contradictory evidence; (3) refining the initial hypothesis based on new data; (4) perseverence despite difficulties such as failed experiments; (5) analyzing the data to determine whether the results are conclusive, or as often happens in science, inconclusive.
By eschewing the finality of data and being more open about the process and the nuance of the results, Kirchoff offers scientists a more compelling and relatable way to present their research.
Science through the And-But-Therefore model of storytelling
Although Kirchoff compares scientific research into a three-act story and breaks it down further into five components, he provides other formats to present science narratives as well. Another way the three act story telling style for science can be adjusted is through the “And, But, Therefore” (ABT) statement. This short statement developed by marine biologist Randy Olsen offers an easy, one sentence way of explaining the purpose of research, why it is conducted, and what relevance it has to everyday life. Just like the storytelling structure, the ABT model is meant to present scientific research in a way that is simple, surprising, concrete, and emotional. All four of these factors are important when crafting a message that is compelling to a general audience.
The simplicity of these various storytelling methods is that they use narrative patterns familiar in people’s minds. These storytelling techniques provide details about the scientific process without bogging the audience down in details. By focusing on the process rather than on the results, the scientist can convey both the challenges and triumphs they experienced throughout the process.
Changing the way science stories are told can shift the way society sees science and boost science literacy. Rather than seeing science as a boring, impersonal endeavor, your audience can identify with scientists as people who face and overcome challenges to advance the boundaries of human knowledge.
The Bottom Line
Presenting Science Concisely by Dr. Bruce Kirchoff is a great resource for any scientists who want to better communicate their latest research findings and efforts to the general public. The book offers a detailed, yet digestible, overview of how to talk about your research in a way that is relevant to the everyday lives of readers and listeners. If you want to learn more about the book, please check it out at the publisher’s website or on Amazon.