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How To Tell a Story They’ll Remember: Insights From Affable Scientific Storyteller Carl Sagan

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There is nothing more mesmerizing than listening to a passionate storyteller speaking about the things they love most. It was the brilliance of one scientific storyteller I had in my first-year psychology class, one who seemed to understand intuitively how to tell a story, that convinced me to major in the subject.

It’s one thing to read a textbook and find the ideas compelling, but it’s quite another to have someone breathe life and emotion into those ideas. It was through empathy that I felt the same emotions my professor had toward psychology. It was through belief in how genuinely important he saw the subject to be that I came to consider it so important myself. He wasn’t just standing before me telling me about psychology, he was convincing me of a set of values (curiosity, critical analysis, creative thinking, self-reflection, the scientific method) that emerges from a subject when the storyteller is able to make you feel the way they feel about something.

Beyond all the studies and papers and textbooks I have carried these values with me throughout my career, and they define my approach to everything in life. Now, whenever I come across a good storyteller, I am reminded of just how powerful stories can be.

How Carl Sagan Changed the Way We Look at the Universe

Carl Sagan

Eminent scientist Carl Sagan was probably best known to the general public for the TV series Cosmos, which he wrote in the late 1970s with Steven Soter and Ann Druyan. Cosmos was conceived during the Cold War, at a time when science was being squandered to a nuclear arms race. Ann Druyan describes the series as “an attempt to convey the soaring spiritual high of its central revelation: our oneness with the universe.” Cosmos was, in a sense, a spiritual call to arms to remind humanity of its finiteness, fragility, and the necessity of unity and cooperation for survival. It communicated about the science of the universe, sure, but at its core was a set of very human values.

Through some masterful creative thinking, Carl Sagan made us see how the importance of studying the universe was fundamentally related to who we are as a species and as a society. He drew parallels between far-away phenomena and our everyday lives here on Earth. He spoke of scientific topics in a poetic way, quite literally, in the rhythmic intonation of his voice and the careful selection of words and imagery that tempted the imagination. His reflective pauses and the way he drew out the sounds of his words created an almost dreamlike atmosphere in the series, as if you were a child being told a bedtime story. He proved to millions of viewers that science could be an accessible, artistic, and passionate field; that facts could be conveyed in a colorful, meaningful way, and have personal significance.

Even within the scientific community, Sagan reminded everyone of the essential human nature of scientific pursuits. Memorably, at the outset of the journey that spacecraft Voyager I embarked on, Sagan asked NASA to reposition its camera to take a look back toward Earth and take a photo of our planet from space. The Pale Blue Dot became one of the best-known photographs of our planet, and a symbol for peace and unity.

pale blue dot

Sagan understood not just the value of the scientific knowledge Voyager I was going to undertake but the significance of the mission for everyday people. In his book of the same name, published in 1994, Sagan said:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Just as I was inspired by my first-year psychology teacher, so too were some of the most well-known names in science today inspired by Carl Sagan. Bill Nye (the Science Guy, and now CEO of The Planetary Society) and Neil Degrasse Tyson (one the most prominent scientific storytellers of today) were both mentored by Sagan. This ensures that Sagan’s values and his drive to cultivate passion for science in society will be carried forward.

Storytelling Takeaways from Carl Sagan

For marketers, Sagan has uncovered some of the most important revelations about how to tell a story. No matter how convoluted, technical, or inaccessible a subject or a set of data may appear, it can be told in a compelling way when you keep these tips in mind:

1. Tell people how your data or your message relates to them personally, and how it relates to our society today. Think about what the big picture is—this is the inspirational viewpoint from which you can tell your story. Show where your passion for the subject comes from and let people empathize with your cause.

2. Treat your message as a form of art, whether it be musical, visual, performance, or a combination of each. Consider elements such as the rhythm and intonation of voice, the imagery you use in language, and even the negative space in your media—the pauses, the silence, the time given for people to think about what you’ve presented.

3. Be clear and unequivocal. Make sure you present the facts honestly, but remember that you can do that in an interesting way. Just be clear about the division between speculation and fact.

4. Take your campaign seriously. You have a chance to really reach people and influence their values when you communicate passionately and authentically. Reflect on and understand your responsibility as a storyteller in society. Being inspired yourself is the first step to inspiring others.

5. Never forget the audience in your marketing strategy. It can be tempting to run wild with your ideas or feel like you need to pack in more information because you personally know so much about it. Remember who you are speaking to and keep your messages simple. They will be much more effective.

6. Don’t ever discount the importance of delivering your message well, even if your audience is small. The way you tell a story can have an enormous impact on a single person who may go on to champion your cause in ways that amplify that message more than a mediocre delivery to a large audience may do.

One wonders how different the world might look had Sagan not fought for the popularization of science. As we struggle to navigate the illogical waters of concepts like “post truth” and “alternative facts,” voices like Sagan’s are even more crucial than ever.

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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