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18 October 2018
The power of storytelling as a tool to communicate science Print
Mercredi, 18 Décembre 2013 00:00
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Who doesn’t love a good story? Stories grab our attention and intrigue us. It often holds the power to change our mind about something. But did you know that the use of strategic storytelling is based on science? Research has shown that people make decisions based on emotion, not rationality, says Brett Davidson, director of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundations in New York. 

We make decisions emotionally and then afterwards justify them rationally, even though we may not be aware of this. So, if scientists want to motivate for specific policy decisions to be made on the basis of their research, it is not enough to just explain the research, says Davidson, they also have to move their audience emotionally. Stories do that. But it goes further. Research also shows that audiences are more moved by the story of a single person than by statistics or case studies about many people.

Writing in Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers, Andy Goodman of the Goodman Center says, “Storytelling is the single most powerful communications tool that we have available to us, bar none. You could make the case that the story is the fundamental unit of human communication—more than the fact or the word or the sentence. As much as we have new tools to work with today—Facebook and YouTube and the rest—if you don’t have the kinds of stories that people want to tell and retell, you haven’t gotten the most basic skill. In any kind of public presentation, stories are what people are waiting for.”

But what makes a good story? Davidson suggests that the elements that need to go into a story to make it effective are:

  • A provocative incident
  • A turning point
  • An ending
  • A surprise
  • Concrete, sensory detail—the storyteller should simply tell “what happened”, not talk about their own inner thought processes or emotions—and avoid jargon and abstractions. Davidson and his team train people to tell stories, describing events as if recorded by a camera that can also smell, taste and touch. This is also based on research showing that sensory language arouses specific responses in listeners’ brains. Using dialogue is also very effective. These concrete details enable the listener to experience their own powerful emotions in response. A listener cannot argue with “what happened”, but interpretations can lead to audience members bringing up their own counter-arguments, says Davidson.
  • At the end of the story, the communicator should explain to the audience what the story means (for example, “this shows that we need a law to make people use seatbelts.”)

So, how do the elements differ from study to story? This model developed by consultant Jane Praeger of Ovid, Inc, a speech and media training company in New York, illustrates how you can transform your message from a case study to a case story. For example, instead of merely informing your audience of your findings, you could make them come alive by using concrete details and images, using a strong theme and evoking emotion and empathy.

A good example of how story and drama have been used to good effect was TV footage earlier this year of scientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at WITS University in South Africa entering caves to retrieve two-million-year-old fossils belonging to the species Australopithecus sediba (Au. sediba). That part of the story was dramatic enough on its own, but here is what made it further fascinating: Because of the narrow opening and the caves’ cramped quarters, the scientists entering had to be of the smallest build possible. So, who qualified for the job? Women. Women who were also scientists. And of small build. A gripping story indeed.

Do you have examples where a powerful story has led to social change?


Linda Cilliers is DRUSSA's online editor