Thursday, 1 August 2013

Tell me a story

For the past three days a number of my colleagues from the Centre for Rural Economy here in Newcastle have been in beautiful Florence, at the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress.  Of course I’m not at all envious (well, only a little).  Neither do I mind helping my colleagues prepare their presentations for such events.  In fact it’s something I really enjoy doing.   But I do wonder why it is that we assume academics will automatically possess the necessary skills for communicating their research to an audience, and why they are so rarely that able to draw on the assistance of communications specialists.  One of my colleagues, who had better remain anonymous, told me recently that preparing powerpoint slides used to be so much easier because he would “simply paste in chunks of text from my research papers”.  It’s harder now that I have shown him the error of his ways apparently.  He is very much the convert.  Solid bullet points of text are out while visual images are in, and I think he would agree that the audience tends to be more attentive as a result.  Finding the right picture is often challenging, but sharing the results of research should be about telling a story, and pictures can help to convey that story by adding a visual dimension.  I have written before, I know, about the importance of stories in communicating research, but this has been very much in my mind recently.  I am currently reading “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, a book that I had been intending to tackle for some time.  I wish I had got around to it sooner because I can hardly bear to put it down.  Reviews have mostly been full of praise, but I have also read a few critical comments, particularly on websites, and possibly from academics, that suggest this is not proper science writing.  I have seen it called “science-lite”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Skloot manages to involve the reader in the lives of Henrietta and her family and make them real, while at the same time conveying the complex technicalities involved in creating the Hela cell line.  This important development, that facilitated so many different medical advances, couldn’t have happened without that individual and her personal story.  I have no qualifications in biochemistry and yet I feel that I understand much more about cells and their biology from reading about Henrietta Lacks.  I don’t think that using human stories or pictures in any way undermines “serious” science, and I wish that academics were routinely given more training and support to help them convey the fascinating tales that they have to tell.   We would all be the richer if they did.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I heard it said that facts conveyed as stories are 22 times more memorable than without a story. I need to find the source - it may be an urban myth. But whether the number 22 is right or not, I think everyone can agree that they remember key points conveyed in stories far longer. Finding a story to fit the key points if every presentation you do as a researcher can be challenging. But if nothing else, you can try and weave your presentation into a bit of a story about your findings, and a dramatic or clever picture can do wonders. The best I saw was by Clifton Bain who showed a picture of a badly damaged toilet - it was a real mess and pretty disgusting. His point: we've got a lot of damaged bogs - peat bogs that is - and it is a disgrace!

  2. An old friend of my father's - Jacob Bronowski would have applauded your approach. "The Common Sense of Science" (Pelican 1960) discusses this. Borrow my copy if you like.