Storytelling in science: How to (remotely) wow an audience

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!

Personal stories

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.

Tips

  • 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.

Interviews

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.

Examples:

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.

Tips

  • 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.

Analogies

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.

An Example:

“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.

Tips

  • 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.

Tips

  • 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!

Tips

  • 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: adamgristwood@gmail.com, @gristwood

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Emily Pomeroy

Meet Emily Pomeroy, who has recently joined the EMBL-EBI Events Team in the role of Events and Marketing Officer for the EMBL-EBI Industry Programme.

PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy

At EMBL since: February 2020

Number of organised conferences/courses:

I am looking forward to helping on my first event for the Industry Programme in May this year.

 The EMBL-EBI Industry Programme is a subscription-based programme for global companies that make significant use of the data and resources provided by EMBL-EBI as a core part of their R&D. The programme is unique, providing regular quarterly strategy meetings, expert-level workshops on topics prioritised by the members, webinars and other activities.

Favourite place in Hinxton area:

Royston Heath, not too far from Hinxton. A lovely place on a warm sunny afternoon for walking, exploring the woodland with the children and a glass of wine afterwards on the lawn outside the Heath Café Bar.

If you weren’t an events and marketing officer, what would you be?

A travel photographer

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened in an event you have organised?

In a previous job, my colleagues and I all had to dress up as clowns for a circus themed dinner, then walk through Leeds city centre to add to the embarrassment.

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

The power to make my children listen to me!

Favorite food/book/TV show/film.

Thai food is my favourite, I have watched Notting Hill more times than I can count and love reading a good travel journal.

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The EMBL ATC celebrates its 10th anniversary

The EMBL Advanced Training Centre (ATC) turned 10 on 9 March! This astonishing building has been an ideal venue to train scientists, foster networking events and has been the starting place for many fruitful collaborations.

The ATC’s architecture is inspired by the DNA’s double helix, and as soon as you step inside, you’ll want to snap a few shots (#EMBLatc #justsaying 😉). Finding your way around the building can be a bit tricky! — to be honest after two years I still get lost sometimes. The easiest way to get to your destination is to walk up and down the helices, where the poster sessions of our events are usually held.

Photo from a lower passage way facing upwards to the ceiling of the ATC. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL
ATC’s double helix. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN
Poster Session at the EMBO | EMBL Symposium: Non-Coding Genome Symposium. PHOTO: Marietta Schupp/EMBL

If you feel like relaxing with a coffee and a great view, the ATC Rooftop Lounge is the answer with the beautiful scenery of the Rhine Valley. You may even get lucky and enjoy an evening up there with jazz and drinks— the night lights make for an incredibly chill atmosphere.

Rooftop lounge Biology and Art event at the EMBO Workshop: Visualizing Biological Data. PHOTO: EMBL Events
ATC at night. PHOTO: KARLHUBERFOTODESIGN

We are happy to celebrate this 10th Anniversary with you and thought we’d share some cool facts from our events from 2010-2019.

52,003: The total number of attendees at EMBL courses and conferences

474: Number of EMBL courses and conferences

2,130: The number of Corporate Partnership Program Fellowships. These have been granted to delegates with 91 different nationalities and 82 countries attending 348 different conferences and courses

764: Additional fellowships provided through EMBO, Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and various societies. These were given to delegates from 73 nationalities and 64 countries to attend 185 courses and conferences.

In case you are feeling curious, here are a few more facts about the ATC.

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5 Years Quantitative Proteomics Course

 

Meet Christina Ludwig (CL), Jeroen Krijgsveld (JK) and Mikhail Savitski (MS) – organisers of the EMBO Practical Course: Quantitative Proteomics: Strategies and Tools to Probe Biology (21 – 26 June 2020). This year marks the course’s 5th anniversary and since 2016 it has grown in popularity and application numbers, reaching 164 applications for 24 seats in 2018. Christina, Jeroen and Mikhail share with us how the course has developed over the years and what their vision is for its future.

 1.  This year marks the 5th anniversary of the Quantitative Proteomics course. Back in 2016, why did you decide to organise it?

JK: The main motivation to initiate the course was because proteomics has become a mature technology that is increasingly being used by biologists to identify proteins, their modifications, interactions etc. However, few biologists have direct access to mass spectrometers, so they use them via collaborators or core facilities. They then get the results in a tabular form, often in a large excel sheet, from which they extract biological interpretation of the experiment. Importantly, we felt that the area between handing in a sample for mass spectrometric analysis and receiving the results was largely a black box. So in the course we aimed to demystify this, and explain the principles and strategies to generate information from raw MS data, and to train them in the use of computational tools to achieve this. Also, we aimed to give insight that proteomics can be done in various ways, so that participants may design their experiments such that they best address the question they are looking to answer. Finally, we aimed to equip participants with some terminology that will help them to communicate with their MS-collaborators, and ask the right questions. Because in many cases proteomics remains a team effort!

2. How has the course developed since?

JK: Proteomics is a very broad field with many mass spectrometric approaches, methods for data analysis and biological applications, making it impossible to cover this in a 1-week course. While in all editions of the course we have maintained a core that explains the main principles in proteomics and covers all of the current state-of-the-art quantitative technologies used in proteomics. Additionally, we have included other elements that varied over the years, to highlight emerging topics or specific application areas, e.g. in structural biology or immunology. This year, we are happy to include a module focusing on statistical analysis of large-scale proteomic data, which is a recurrent issue in almost any proteomics experiment.

3. How do you choose which bioinformatics tools to cover in the course?

JK: There is an increasing number of bioinformatic tools that can analyse the same data using different underlying algorithms. Several of them have matured a lot over the years, making them more robust or have additional functionality. It is not always easy for anyone to know, when looking for an ‘analysis pipeline’, which tool can be best used. It can actually be a bit confusing that the same data can produce different results depending on the tool that is used, while at the same time none will be wrong. So instead of telling which tool is the best, we explain some of the underlying assumptions and the influence one has by choosing certain settings. I think for a researcher it is more important to justify how the data were processed, instead of saying that they used a certain software tool.

4. What could the techniques in this course be used for in the bigger picture?

CL: Proteomics technologies have reached a level of comprehensiveness, throughput and quantitative quality that was inconceivable just a few years back. However, applying proteomics to biological projects still requires lots of knowledge about experimental design, optimal sample preparation, most suitable mass spectrometric technologies and statistical interpretation. If we manage to bring both worlds together and teach biologists about the power, as well as the caveats, of proteomics, I think this will really impact life science in many aspects and truly transform the way how scientific projects are carried out for many scientists all over the world.

JK: I agree. Demonstrating the versatility, and thereby the potential and broad utility of proteomics in different contexts is sometimes an eye-opener for course participants. Actually, it is interesting and useful that participants come from all corners of biology, from paleobiology to clinical biomarker discovery. Having those together in a room for a week and interact, with proteomics as the common interest, is fascinating to see as an organiser. And we explicitly facilitate such interactions in discussion groups – it is an important goal of the course.

5. How do you see this course growing in the future?

CL: I think one special feature of this course, compared to other proteomics courses, is that its rather familial in character due to the small number of 24 participants, and that they come from purposefully different countries and research institutes. This rather small group size is optimal in terms of group dynamics and allows lots of personal exchange between participants and speakers, as well as an optimal support during the practical sessions. Therefore, I hope also in the future the small and familiar atmosphere of this course will remain.

JK: What I also hope, and what we’ll try to achieve, is to remain up-to-date and include novel technologies that are emerging. After 20 years of steep development in mass spectrometry, one would expect that this levels off at some point, but this is not the case at all – it is actually difficult to keep up with what is happening, and with what is possible today that you would not dare to think about yesterday. Therefore, a remaining goal for us is to invite speakers and trainers who work at the forefront of technology, but who can also bridge this to important biological applications. This is what excites us as organisers, and we hope that this will help to make this one of the courses to go to for younger generations of scientists, and get infected too.

6. What motivates you most about your work?

CL: What I really love about heading a proteomics core facility is the huge variety of cool scientific projects you get exposed to, as well as the fact that you work closely with lots of very different scientists coming from completely different scientific disciplines. Every project and every collaboration partner challenges you in terms of diving into a new research area, providing an optimal proteomic workflow and also teaching and educating your collaboration partners in understanding their proteomic data.

MS: The fact that you have the constant possibility to come up and implement creative ideas is incredibly rewarding. Also the fact in research you are constantly generating results that are the first of their kind. There is always an experiment done that has not been done by anyone before and you are the first to see the results. I also love the academic environment the freedom and craziness of it all.

7. Why did you end up in the field of Proteins and Proteomics?

CL: Already during my Chemistry studies all the “biochemistry” lectures and practicals that focused on proteins and life sciences were by far the most interesting subjects for me. During my PhD, which I did in the field of protein engineering at the TU Dortmund, I studied a specific class of proteins, so called inteins, but I hardly applied any mass spectrometry during that time. However, for one specific experiment I used for the first time MALDI-MS to identify the reaction products of a set of purified inteins. My MALDI measurements showed the occurrences of an unexplainable loss of 18 m/z for one of my inteins. First I thought I did a mistake and was very frustrated. But when I repeated and further investigated my samples using also ESI tandem mass spectrometry I could proof the existence of a very interesting cyclic protein-intermediate, which actually helped me explaining the underlying protein splicing mechanism. This turned out being the most interesting result of my whole PhD.

MS: I originally was very focused on pure mathematics. By chance I had an encounter with Roman Zubarev who was a new professor at Uppsala University at the time. His drive, energy and passion for science convinced me to switch fields from mathematics to mass spectrometry and proteomics, which I never regretted.

8. What could you not do without in your life?

CL: Well, as a mother of two beautiful kids the very first thing I could not do without in my life is of course my family :)! And together with my family we love being outdoors, ideally in the Alps, either on (mountain)bikes, rock climbing or hiking. Living without mountains and outdoor activities would be very hard.

MS: First and foremost, my family! Second is physical activity. I love science and I love working a lot, but it takes its toll physically and mentally. My perfect way of recovering and getting the energy back is ideally by rock climbing, running and being out in nature in general.

9. If you would get the chance to meet a famous person – no matter if this person is still alive or not – who would that be?

CL: As a hobby climber I would really like to once meet Alex Honold, who is a world famous free-solo climber who climbed many of the most difficult and exposed climbs in Yosemite National Park without rope. Alex seems in interviews and videos like a really nice and funny guy, but I believe his brain must function very differently than mine when it comes to fear of height, so I would love chat with him about that ;).

MS: I was always interested in mathematics as well as computer science. It would have been fascinating to meet Alan Turing and discuss his vision of how things would develop based on what he knew back then. Incidentally, he was also a really excellent long distance runner with sub 3 hours’ marathon times. It would have been exciting to have a discussion over a run on the countryside :).

10. Which was the best decision in your career so far?

CL: I think the best decision for my career was to perform my Postdoc in the group of Professor Ruedi Abersold at the ETH Zürich, because this has really been the door opener for my career so far. When I finished my PhD it was actually not easy for me to decide for a postdoc in the field of mass spectrometry, because I hardly had any MS experience (I only performed this one MS experiment that I already described above ;)). And starting in a proteomics expert lab as a postdoc who had never really done proteomics before was definitely not easy in the beginning. But I did learn a lot of new things fast and ultimately this allowed me to bring together the two different expertises from my PhD and my Postdoc, which I do believe is a big advantage for any scientific career.

MS: Professionally, I think doing PhD in mass spectrometry was probably the best decision I have made so far. That early in your career, one still knows very little of the world and some luck is definitely required.


Interested in this course? Apply by 22 March!

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Meet the EMBL Events Team: Julie

There’s a lot more to organising events than just the logistics. The marketing team makes sure that you find out about all of our events, you don’t miss any deadlines and that all the feedback you share with us is taken into consideration for improvement — oh yeah, and they also get to organise fun competitions!

Julie is the Marketing Team Lead. She’s great company, always has super helpful tips and a big, big smile on her face. She’s the team’s scientist and the statistics guru. Julie is always willing to lend an ear if you need it and she’ll be sure to cheer you up with some optimistic vibes.

Julie Heinecke PHOTO: Nicola Vegiopoulos/EMBL

At EMBL since: June 2014

Favourite place in Heidelberg:

Halle 02 Im Freien” on summer evenings (Thurs – Sat). When the weather is nice, they have DJs and other live shows outside on a little sandy beach. It’s a super relaxing way to spend an evening.

First thing you do before a conference/course starts and first thing you do after a conference/course finishes:

Make sure the camera is charged before the meeting and make sure to save all the pictures afterwards!

If you weren’t a marketing statistics guru what would you be?

Something in science education — perhaps a teacher or even working in a science museum.

What is the strangest/funniest thing that has ever happened at a course/conference?  

We had ordered new lanyards for the name badges so that they would not flip around as easily. The first time we used them was for a big conference with hundreds of people in the auditorium. During the first session someone tweeted that it sounded like Christmas time with all the jingling going on in the auditorium!

If you were a superhero what power would you like to have?

Some sort of healing power, or the ability to change body size depending on the situation — sometimes you just need to be a little taller (or shorter!)

Her faves:

Favourite recipe – Shakshuka (free style cooking)

Book – Harry Potter series (Prisoner from Azkaban if I had to choose)

TV show – The Office (US version)

Film – Die Hard

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