Scientists need to tell better stories

space stories by jurvetson
Stories Can Change The World:
[Via BIF Speak]

“Facts are facts, but stories are who we are, how we learn, and what it all means.” My friend Alan Webber, Co-founder of Fast Company and author of Rules of Thumb, has it exactly right. Storytelling is the most important tool for any innovator.


Scientists may not always realize it but they are always telling stories, providing narratives to illustrate the point to their research. This is often missed because the form the narrative takes is so structured that it does not appear like any story most of us have read.

But a story it is. It may be “Here is something no one has ever seen before and we don’t know what is going on.” Or “After years of work, we have completely delineated how this disease progresses.” Or “Here is an important piece to the puzzle that has been giving us fits for such a long time.” Or, sometimes, “What everyone else has written before is completely wrong and we show why!”

As a graduate student, I first ran across the expression, when putting a paper together, was “What story do we want to tell?” Few non-scientists really understand that every paper is simply a narrative. The best ones are incredible stories.

The structure of a paper throws many people off. There is an abstract, background, materials and methods, results and conclusions. It does not look like a standard text, it is presented in a stilted fashion and it has a structure that is unfamiliar but it actually does have a beginning, middle and end.

The abstract acts like a blurb on the back of a book, telling us whether the paper is worth reading. The background and methods act like a preface, giving us informative background.

The results are the meat of the story. Most start small, building up the knowledge as they move to data that have greater and greater ramifications. This leads to the climax of the paper, where they can state what it is they have now proven.

The conclusions often function as a denouement, recapitulating the action and providing context. It can also set up the action for the sequel.

Anyone reading Watson and Crick’s classic paper on the structure of DNA can see that it is a story. In fact, it compresses much of the normal scientific narrative in order to provide one of the classic “We figured it all out before everyone else!” stories.

It starts off with what others have proposed, continues with their model, demonstrates just how much better this fits all the data, and then ending with these words, setting up everything for the next series of papers:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggest a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

Full details of the structures, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of co-ordinates for the atoms, will be published elsewhere.

Science papers have an unusual format but they follow some of the standard things we see in any story. There has to a point to the paper. Why would anyone want to read the paper? It ca not just be a collection of random facts. The paper has to lead to some firm conclusions, including possible ramifications for current studies..

It must be focussed. It cannot meander through a lot of side streams. A science paper has to be kept on a very tight leash.

In every paper I have written, I have had to toss out very good experimental data, data that have no problems, because that they really do not fit the narrative that drives us to the conclusion. A well written paper focuses on the point and does not provide side trips into other areas.

The DNA paper did all this in one page. It left the detours for another time.

Most scientists realize at some level that a paper has to tell a story. But they do not realize that a scientific presentation at a conference really must do the same. There needs to be a beginning, middle and end. There has to be a point to it all, providing context to the data and its place in Nature.

Too many scientists forget this. They provide no frame for the discussion, leave needed background out and dump in all the data that was not fit for the focussed needs of a papers. Thus, most scientific presentations are unfocussed and boring. No structure and no real point.

The best presentations, the ones we all remember, use the data to provide a narrative, to help us understand just what story they are trying to tell.

We all tend to learn the needed tools to write a good science paper, incorporating the idea of a proper narrative. But few are provided any real tools to apply to presentations before a group of people. Most never learn the proper tools and simply give boring talk after boring talk.

Learning how to tell better stories, not just write good narratives, is something al researchers should learn how to do. But, whereas there is a real premium put on writing good papers, there is little pressure to speak well before a group.

That is why the best places to be at scientific conferences is usually not at the presentations but at the bars and pubs frequented by the conference goers. We get the real story there because every human being knows how to trade stories with others, even when the group is just a bunch of researchers.

Now if we could just get more researchers to adopt this approach to their public speaking trips, we might affect some real change.

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