A wonderful thing happened recently: I decided to subscribe to the BBC Earth channel. Since then, I’ve scarcely watched anything else since. I’ve been transfixed by the way in which these programs wield all the right elements to tell good stories that elicit joy and awe in their audiences.
I subscribed to make sure I didn’t miss the North American debut of Planet Earth II, with one of my favorite scientific storytellers. At 90, Sir David Attenborough still conveys the same level of passion, with just as much vigor for natural history, as he did when he first started out in his career. I also discovered another gem: Human Universe, narrated by Brian Cox, a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester. I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over at “particle physics,” but take a look at this clip from the series and you’ll see what I mean:
Brian Cox radiates with childlike wonder at the science of our universe, and you can’t help but feel joy and fascination alongside him. The series brings the beautiful physics of everyday life out of the woodwork with exceptional story elements and a narrative style that transports us into his world, a world that is likely completely foreign to a majority of his audience.
The ability to bridge the void between technical subjects and everyday life is an increasingly important skill. While our digital channels are being flooded with vapid clickbait and sensationalism, scientists are facing an uphill battle for mind share in a saturated media landscape. The rapid pace and immediacy that govern our lives today are not conducive to support and appreciation for long-term, in-depth scientific studies, or for taking the requisite time and care to understand the subtle complexities of scientific progress.
Whereas I would rather see a correction in our digital frenzy, I’m not confident I will be so lucky. The way we communicate scientific and technical information needs to adapt to retain influence in our society.
Researchers at the University of Washington discovered that the way a scientific paper is written impacts how influential it is. Examining 732 research papers on climate change in peer-reviewed publications, they discovered that the narrative style of a paper’s abstract had a direct correlation to how often that paper was cited.
The researchers used several metrics drawn from psychology, philosophy, and communications to measure narrativity. They found that the most-cited papers contained more sensory language, more conjunctions that established logical connections between information, more interconnectivity between sentences, and more appeals (calls to action, for instance) to the reader.
In a nutshell, the more the abstract of a paper told a strong story, the more likely it was to get nods in the space. This fits with existing scientific findings that tell us good stories are better understood, remembered and recalled than information communicated in other forms.
Narrative story elements may have such a significant impact on our level of understanding, memory, and recall for information because they activate more complex brain networks than non-narrative information. Brain imaging studies are only just beginning to reveal the extensive ways in which stories light up our cerebral cortexes, but researchers are finding large, complicated patterns of activation spread throughout the brain. When we present information that has a cohesive and layered narrative arc, we are asking the brain to perform a more in-depth level of abstract thinking. The more links a story can trigger in the brain, the more we can relate the information in front of us to past experiences and ideas; we incorporate that story into our mental maps in many ways.
When we’re talking about the impact of climate change research, the role that strong narrative plays is tied to (and this isn’t even hyperbole!) the future of humanity on Earth. Even within the technical echelons of the scientific community, we are all still humans communicating information to other humans, and our preference for narrative appears to be consistent no matter the type of information or setting.
In addition to documentary series like Planet Earth II and Human Universe, those looking to communicate messages from a technical or scientific industry, company, or cause can look to techniques from some prolific scientific storytellers, including Chris Hadfield, Ray Kurzweil, and Carl Sagan. One of the biggest takeaways, and one I struggle with all the time, is remembering how to step back from the details and see the big picture. Chris Hadfield almost never referred to the scientific experiments taking place aboard the International Space Station; instead, he appealed to people’s curiosity about day-to-day life in space. It is, of course, important to tailor your message to your specific audience, but remember that we are all human.
We want to hear good stories, so tell us yours.
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Featured image attribution: Brian Mann (via Unsplash)