Resource of the Week: The importance of storytelling in science

Screenshot of article; follow links for full text
Screenshot of article

Numerous articles, resources, podcasts, and whole ventures (e.g., StoryCorps; The Moth) address key aspects of narrative and storytelling that are valuable (even essential) for sharing science.

See the following articles for a few we find particularly helpful, insightful, or thought-provoking.

These resources may change how you do things and/or provide you with useful citations to justify how you tell science stories.

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science (PLOS One, 2016), written about in this blog post (also from PLOS).

Abstract: Peer-reviewed publications focusing on climate change are growing exponentially with the consequence that the uptake and influence of individual papers varies greatly. Here, we derive metrics of narrativity from psychology and literary theory, and use these metrics to test the hypothesis that more narrative climate change writing is more likely to be influential, using citation frequency as a proxy for influence. From a sample of 732 scientific abstracts drawn from the climate change literature, we find that articles with more narrative abstracts are cited more often. This effect is closely associated with journal identity: higher-impact journals tend to feature more narrative articles, and these articles tend to be cited more often. These results suggest that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in climate literature, and perhaps in scientific literature more broadly.

Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences (PNAS, 2014).

Abstract: Although storytelling often has negative connotations within science, narrative formats of communication should not be disregarded when communicating science to nonexpert audiences. Narratives offer increased comprehension, interest, and engagement. Nonexperts get most of their science information from mass media content, which is itself already biased toward narrative formats. Narratives are also intrinsically persuasive, which offers science communicators tactics for persuading otherwise resistant audiences, although such use also raises ethical considerations. Future intersections of narrative research with ongoing discussions in science communication are introduced.

The Power of Story (American Educator, 2002)

Excerpt: “As [E.O.] Wilson explains in this first article, the universal love of stories is not a coincidence; our brains function by constructing narratives. Adults and children alike live, learn, and relate to others through stories. Unlike other forms of writing, stories engage our emotions and imagination in the process of learning. “The story,” according to educational theory professor Kieran Egan, “not only conveys information and describes events and actions, but it also engages our emotions. ‘Story’ does not necessarily imply a fictional narrative; rather, it involves the narrative shaping of any content.”

Using the Understanding Science Flowchart to Illustrate and Bring Students’ Science Stories to Life (Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 2017)

Excerpt: “Many students have learned that science proceeds in a linear fashion from question to conclusion, much like a recipe, with each step corresponding to the sections of a traditional laboratory report. Yet this is not how science works. In addition, students often groan when required to write a “laboratory report.” This linear, prescribed style of science teaching masks the dynamic and creative aspects of the scientific process that are likely to engage students. The Understanding Science flowchart, a graphic depiction of how science works, provides students with a realistic approach to asking and answering scientific questions. The format lends itself to creating narrative, “…the human way of working through a chaotic and unforgiving world” (Wilson 2002). This article introduces the Understanding Science flowchart and then highlights different ways to apply the resource in middle and high school settings.”