By Adam Gristwood, EMBL and EMBO alumnus, now freelance science writer and communications trainer
When I was 10 years old, I landed the role of Romeo in my school’s play. We had a fantastic cast, rehearsals ran smoothly, and the auditorium was a complete sellout. In my mind, we were not kids in an assembly hall, but an all-star cast at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. An amazing rush of adrenalin pulsed through my body as I walked out on stage.
Romeo and Juliet is a gripping story, full of battles, romance, deception, persistence, and tragedy. After being banished from Verona, Romeo sneaks to Juliet’s apartment in the middle of the night to declare his love. Onstage, as I waited impatiently beneath Juliet’s balcony, I caught a glimpse of my proud parents in the crowd. I felt ecstatic.
In our version of the play, however, Romeo never got to reveal his true feelings for Juliet. Suddenly, the lights in the auditorium went out. I panicked and searched for my mum and dad, but their faces were ablur. I looked across to my classmates, but they too had faded away. As the room was enveloped by darkness, I heard an intense ringing. I tried to call out for help, but my words were silent, as if I were shouting them in deep space.
Before I could get my head around what was happening, the light came flooding back. As objects slowly came back into focus, I saw blue sky and billowing clouds. Oak trees swayed gently in the breeze. I could feel the warmth of the sun on the palms of my hands. Someone was standing over me clutching a wet towel. Blood was trickling down my face. My sense of panic came roaring back. I had fainted. There were no understudies. The show had not carried on.
Maybe I would forever be remembered as ‘that kid who ruined the play’. Our teachers destroyed the recording that the children were meant to take home as a keepsake. I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame. I no longer wanted to become a West End superstar. Instead, I pursued a role that would keep me as far from public view as possible – a writer tucked away in a garden shed, perhaps. Or a scientist hidden behind a lab bench. Why not combine them somehow for maximum effect?
Serendipitously, the cowardice of my younger self paved a way back into the spotlight. Science communication is, in reality, an immensely interactive and rewarding field. My work involves writing about issues that lie on the intersect of science and society. I have also been thrust back on stage as a science communication trainer. I help researchers to communicate with audiences though storytelling.
The aim is to improve connections with public, media, policymakers, managers, colleagues, editors, funders, and many others. And the way you tell stories really matters.
In-person training is very rightly on hold as the world deals with the coronavirus crisis. But the downtime got me thinking about how my storytelling workshop activities could be taken on remotely, without direct supervision. So here is a little experiment of my own. Below are five exercises that I hope will boost your storytelling skills. Feel free to pick and choose depending on their relevance. And please let me know how you get on!
Activity length: 45 minutes
Personal stories matter because you are invested in them. Therefore, when you tell them, your audience is more likely to feel they matter as well. Write a personal story (around 300 words) related to your life as a scientist for a non-specialist public audience.
You might reflect on adversities, adversaries, inspirations, friendships, hardships, or simply share what is on your mind. The story might be a commentary (like mine above), blog, script, comic, poem, or piece of creative writing.
The piece should be informative and entertaining. Send your story to friends or family for feedback. Integrate constructive criticism and publish on social media, a blog, or just keep in mind for future use.
- Find three articles that you particularly enjoyed reading. Take a close look at how paragraphs are linked, characters introduced, and situations described.
- Use a narrative arc: start high and end low, or vice versa.
- If you are short of ideas, take a conceptual theme and use it to develop a story. I was reminded of my experience, above, when reflection on failure. Other examples of themes: failure, love, curiosity, systems, deep, the unknown, black and white, codes.
- Avoid jargon but maintain detail. Provide enough description for the audience to follow, but do not overwhelm. Be clear, accurate, and succinct.
- Edit your work at least three times. If a sentence is not part of the story cut it. Listen to feedback, but also trust your gut. Trim at least 10% in the final draft.
Time: 1 hour
Telling someone else’s story can also bring new perspective to how you tell your own. Arrange a 15-minute video call with a colleague, friend, or family member. Conduct a friendly interview (you could ask them to interview you as well, in return). Briefly report five unique facts you learned about your interviewee.
Kath is one of the world’s leading data scientists, despite growing up in an era where girls were discouraged from becoming researchers.
Kath plays card games to relax and has won a national bridge championship.
Kath wants to cycle from Lisbon to Istanbul to raise money for research into a rare disease her sister suffers from.
Now choose one of the facts you have written and expand it into a 200-word story. Write it in the first person from the interviewee’s perspective – like an extended quote. You may need to do a follow up interview. For inspiration, see here. With your interviewee’s permission, share your story on social media.
- Do some background research and write out your questions. If you’re stuck, some good generic questions are: what’s on your mind? What are your hobbies? Can you recall a time that you’ve failed? Where do you do your most creative thinking? What’s your greatest achievement? If you could go to dinner with anyone who would it be? What do you feel most grateful for? What’s your most treasured memory?
- Put your interviewee at ease. Tell them what you want from the interview. Suggest they make themselves a brew before you start. Make yourself one, too.
- If recording the interview, check the person is OK with it before pressing the button. Recording can help you to be fully engaged in the interview. Do a test as recorders and computer speakers don’t always mix well.
- Try to allow the interview to flow but be prepared to guide the interviewee back to the point if they go off track. If it gets technical, try to repeat back to them what you heard in your own words to ensure that you understood what they said.
- Edit your write up carefully – aim to be concise without losing meaning. Send the piece to your interviewee and ask them for feedback.
Time: 30 minutes
Analogies and metaphors play a crucial role in aspects such as memory, perception, argumentation, emotion, creativity, and communication – as detailed in this wonderful book. When talking about research, they can also act as a bridge for people to better understand complex ideas and concepts. Develop an analogy that could be used to describe your work or an aspect of your work.
“Think of gravity like a magnet, and everything in space has it. The bigger the object, the stronger the magnet. The sun is really big – big enough to attract the Earth, and the Earth attracts the moon, and because of gravity, they’re all attracted to each other. It’s like they all want to hug and be close. But they can’t, so they send out little waves instead.” – Fulvio Melia, University of Arizona
Create a social media group and invite some colleagues. Share analogies and give critical feedback. Ask: Does it improve my understanding? Is it accurate? Do I want to know more? Vote on your favourite analogue – the winner should then explain the thinking behind their analogy.
- For more inspiration check our Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, a great analogy that gives context to the history of life on our planet.
- Take a couple of long-form science features and highlight every sentence where you spot an analogy or metaphor being used.
- Scribe your favourite analogies in a notebook.
- If it is outside your field of expertise, send the analogy to an expert. If they reply with more than one exclamation mark, then ask them politely how it could be improved.
- Heed the warning of journalist Jacob Aron: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks – when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”
Speaking to school kids
Time: 45 minutes
Write a 3-minute presentation about your life as a scientist. Your target audience is a 15-year old student who is debating whether to take up science in her ‘A’ levels. You might consider: your research; the bigger picture; a typical day/week; why you became a scientist; and advice for becoming a researcher. Build in as many analogies as possible. The more colourful, the better.
Get feedback from friends or family. When you are satisfied with your presentation, offer to chat science over a video chat with children of friends. Share your offer on social media. Join an initiative such as Skype-a-scientist. Or film your presentation and share wherever you can.
- Ditch jargon, but do not shy away from complicated topics. Break them down to their components. Look at how others do it.
- Use analogies wherever possible.
- Use props, share slides, provide links to relevant articles, draw diagrams, write out summaries of your work.
- Make a point of getting feedback: ask your audience what they learned, thought interesting, or found difficult to understand.
- Be engaging and enthusiastic!
Write an entertaining presentation
Time: 45 minutes
Write, rehearse, and record an entertaining 3-minute presentation for an online competition. Your target audience is a general public, who are interested in science. There are just two rules: stick to time and make it enjoyable! You could tell a story, recite a poem, sing, rap, dance, act, mime, run an experiment, or anything else you can think of. Balance your phone on a window ledge. Press record. Send your video to friends. Get feedback. Re-record if need be. If you get a good response share it on social media. Don’t forget to keep a look out for online competitions, where your hidden talents might finally be discovered!
- Shows such as science slams or initiatives such as the Story Collider provide platforms to talk about your work in an inventive and memorable way. Study use of words, eye contact, humour, and body language. Be as creative as you can when writing your presentation.
- Remove jargon, excavate the important details.
- Write it out. Recite it in the shower, on the balcony, and in the kitchen. When you think you have it nailed, practice it thrice more.
- When in front of the camera: smile, never turn your back, speak loudly and clearly.
- Finally, have fun – and don`t faint whilst the camera’s on.
Requests, questions, suggestions: email@example.com, @gristwood