Opinion: Now more than ever, scientists need to communicate better. Here’s how.
Sharing research effectively boils down to one simple concept: Tell a good story.
If a scientist makes an important discovery, yet the world never hears about it, was it ever really made?
Instances of scientists failing to communicate their discoveries go back centuries. Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics, died with little fanfare in the late 1800s because few knew of his important research. It took more than a decade for his work to be “rediscovered” and catalyze the beginnings of the field of genetics.
In today’s world of nonstop information, the risk of research remaining obscure is greater than ever. One of the ironies of the computer era is that each innovation for better communication has simply led to more buzz and more difficulty being heard. This is a serious problem for science because in our increasingly-data driven world, science controls everything from Wall Street to baseball to elections. But if the ones with the knowledge of how things work — the scientists — can’t be heard, we might as well be back in the dark ages where everything was confusing and mystical.
And yet, when it comes to basic communication — one person speaking to another — the more things change, the more the basic dynamic remains the same. This is because our fundamental communication device — our brain — hasn’t changed.
And, But, Therefore
Neurophysiology research by Uri Hasson at Princeton University and others shows greater activity and synchrony between individuals when information has a narrative structure to it. They use functional MRI to examine individuals watching films that have no narrative structure (video footage of people walking randomly in a park) versus films with high narrative content (an Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie). The research shows that adding narrative structure to information (i.e., telling a story) results in more effective communication.
This is how humans communicated 4,000 years ago when the story of Gilgamesh was carved into clay tablets in Mesopotamia. It is still the way we communicate today via Twitter. And, in my mind, it’s our best hope for communicating science well in a world in which good science communication is more important than ever.
In the end, most people just want to know what we are talking about, what the problem is, and how we are going to solve it.
In the end, most people just want to know what we are talking about, what the problem is, and how we are going to solve it. To convey this information, I propose in the latest edition of Don’t Be Such a Scientist using what I call the ABT Universal Narrative Template. The ABT boils the narrative structure down to three words: And, But, Therefore. These three words capture the three fundamental forces of narrative: agreement, contradiction and consequence. Once you begin looking at the world through these three forces, you see things differently.
You see that Abraham Lincoln opened the Gettysburg Address by stating what audience members could agree on — that we’ve built a great country. Then he presented the contradiction — that the country was being torn apart by civil war. And then he concluded with the consequence, that it was up to “us the living” to ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Making Science Human
Once you know about it, it’s easy to see how the ABT structure forms the backbone of just about everything interesting in the world of communication, from legendary speeches like the Gettysburg Address to Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 mega-hit with the chorus, “Hey, I just met you AND this is crazy, BUT here’s my number, SO call me maybe” (“so” is the more conversational version of “therefore”).
Science can no longer afford the luxury of not caring whether the public understands.
Unfortunately, it’s not so common in the world of science. Even though the entire process of science is built around set up (this is what we know so far about this subject), problem (this is the new aspect of it we are studying) and solution (here’s what we’ve found), when talking about their work scientists tend to get stuck in using the first element — the word “and.”, As in, “here’s some data on this, AND here’s a graph of this, AND here’s a table showing this …” It’s the bane of science communication — getting caught in “The Land of And,” never making it to the word “but.”
Science can no longer afford the luxury of not caring whether the public understands. And even more important is the need to “make science human,” or communicate science in human terms. This is what the power of narrative makes possible.
You now have a tool to communicate science better (the ABT) AND you know it’s important to do so. BUT actually improving communication is lot of work. SO it’s time to get to work.
The good news: all it takes is a little taste of success with the ABT and you will be hooked. Communication success breeds communication success.
Originally published at ensia.com on July 18, 2018.
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