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Science of Story Building — A Foreword

Of course, I have to start with a story.

In June 2009, I was invited to conduct a storytelling workshop at the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland. My audience was comprised of roughly a hundred marine biologists and climate scientists, so not exactly the kind of crowd one would find at a Moth storytelling slam. It was early summer and Silver Spring was already sweltering, but the meeting room that day was chilly…and I’m not referring to the air conditioning.

Andy Goodman, an international expert on storytelling, is co-founder and director of The Goodman Center.

I was no more than five minutes into my opening remarks when a hand went up in the audience. “I have a question,” a man interjected before I could even call on him. “With all due respect,” he began, signaling that he was about to show me no respect whatsoever, “isn’t storytelling the opposite of what I do?” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that, as a scientist, his job was to ignore the anecdotal evidence and to find the truth in multiple occurrences, or as it was more reverently referred to in the hallowed halls of NOAA, “the data.”

This led to a general nodding of heads and a murmuring that I feared would turn into a chanting of “the data, the data, the data” unless I produced just the right response. Fortunately, having previously worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the RAND Corporation, and other assemblages of the data-devoted, I had heard this kind of objection before.

I told him that I was well aware of this tension between science and storytelling, and I was happy to assure him that they were not mutually exclusive — in fact, if your goal is to change how people think and behave, they go hand-in-hand. The hard truth is that we human beings walk around with a bunch of stories in our heads about the way the world works, and everything that happens to us gets filtered through those stories. If we are presented with data that doesn’t correlate with one of those stories, we will reject the data.

So, for anyone in the changing-the-world business, “Including you,” I told my inquisitor, the first order of business is often giving your audience a new story that will let your data in — i.e., a narrative that gets people nodding their heads, thinking “Yes, that is the way the world works…tell me more.” A powerful, resonant story backed by data is the one-two punch of persuasion. (And in case you’re wondering how this story ended: I cannot claim that the scientists all gave a great huzzah and carried me around NOAA’s offices on their shoulders, but the climate in that meeting room did change, which seems like a fitting outcome.)

I was reminded of this story when I finished reading this invaluable report. As you will see in the Introduction, there are numerous scientific studies that have clearly validated the role stories can play in changing behavior for societal benefit. To a large extent, the objections I heard at NOAA are a thing of the past — let’s think of them as Act One in the story of storytelling. The time has come to consider how science can continue its necessary collaboration with narrative, and to learn more precisely how to construct the stories that will change the world. Welcome to Act Two.


Andy Goodman is co-founder and director of The Goodman Center.