Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Telling tales: how scientists can use stories

10 Apr 2018
How can stories help when explaining complex research? Our regular column investigates the power of anecdote and analogy.
By Ruth Francis

A young researcher is presenting for the first time to an important conference. Beforehand, she paces; she is nervous. It’s a big crowd and she wants her audience to hang on her every word, ask questions and offer feedback. She wants her talk to be memorable. 

She could simply stick to dry facts without context or emotion. Or she could harness the potential of storytelling to draw in the audience and highlight the importance of her work.

Stories are powerful, they are memorable. Stories teach, and stories sell! Stepping back from nitty gritty detail when describing complex research and instead telling a story about it will captivate audiences. 

For example -- one presenter framed her talk about coral to a lay audience of scuba divers by saying: “You might not know it, but you’ve probably stepped on the coral I study.” That got the attention of the room right away, much more so than if she had simply started with: “I study zoanthids.” 

What do I mean by storytelling? True stories, little anecdotes about what it is like to do your research. It could be a colorful detail that sets the scene for us, a smell or a sound, a challenge you faced as part of the work. I always enjoy the classic: “We weren’t even trying to answer this question until one day…” Describing your own journey -- roadblocks and all -- gives a personal touch, builds trust and makes it easier for others to relate.

Analogies are another powerful tool to explain your work. These comparisons help break down complex ideas and make them more tangible. I still remember a researcher painting a picture of an asteroid as the size of a family car, and another telling me that achieving nuclear fusion is like trying to contain jelly with elastic bands. The trick is to make sure the analogy is easy to grasp so it will genuinely help with comprehension, not confuse things further. 

To begin crafting your story, think about what you want people to remember. Pick key details to share and leave out the rest. The novelist Henry Green said: “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” Nothing will set an audience’s mind wandering like unnecessary information.

Whether presenting, writing a grant proposal, interviewing for a job, or simply meeting someone new, humanising the research with an anecdote and analogy will make it, and you, unforgettable. It’s worth a try, perhaps in a lab meeting or with a family member. Gauge the response to figure out which anecdotes and analogies are most effective. Then, you’ll never be without a great communication tool to share your research story. 

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with over 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.