The holy trinities of scientific storytelling

Aristotle’s 21st century comeback

Remember him? Aristotle?

The Eureka!-in-bathtub mathematician? 
Nope, that was Archimedes.

Um, the one who said that philosophers should rule as kings?
Closer! That was Plato.

How about the “I know that I know nothing” one?
Ah, that was Socrates — Plato’s teacher.

Don’t worry, I’d also forgotten about Aristotle — turns out he was Plato’s student — until a conference last week about science policy, outreach and tools (#SpotOn17).

Enter the speech writer

The organisers had the brilliant idea of inviting the brilliant Simon Lancaster — a speechwriter who bears the sin of having written for the CEOs of faceless conglomerates like HSBC, Cadbury and Intercontinental Hotels — to show us scientists, former or current, how to better explain science.

Trinity #1 — from Aristotle’s Rhetoric

A three-book series with 60 chapters, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a magnum opus on the art of persuasion.

Simon reminds us that for an argument to stand on its own, all three of the following must be evident:

  1. Ethos: Does your audience have enough reason to trust you?
  2. Logos: Can your audience follow your logic?
  3. Pathos: To use Simon’s technical term, does your audience give a shit?

So now you’ve got the crux of your story, but you still have to package it.

Trinity #2 — from Aristotle’s Poetics

Poetics is Aristotle’s regrettably half-missing treatise on the art of storytelling.

Simon takes Aristotle’s three key elements of a memorable story just a step further by relating it to neurotransmitters responsible for our emotional response:

  1. Start off by piling up the pity (oxytocin) for the situation;
  2. Then get their hearts racing with fear (cortisol);
  3. But don’t leave them hanging! Make sure you close off the story with a good dose of catharsis (dopamine).

Any examples?

Creative teams at charities expend a great number of brain cells and resources on trying to get their message across. Try this one here:

It’s certainly memorable — clearly structured into the exemplary pitiful beginning, stressful middle, and cathartic end — but you still don’t have to agree to their way of solving the issue at hand.

Just remember, good storytelling doesn’t mean creating hype

As scientists, we have a duty to share our knowledge — and help others understand what we’ve shared.

Good storytelling welcomes newcomers to our research. It includes and invites support from the public and can put us in touch with other innovators who can help solve our problems faster.

Now who wouldn’t want that?

Listen to Simon Lancaster’s full talk below, as recorded by my humble smartphone at the event — apologies for any coughing and rustling!

And here’s a closer look at Simon’s slide, where he emphasises his own holy trinity — a relatable metaphor, a captivating story, and a punchy soundbite:

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