Communicating your research to a wide audience is tricky. They have varying levels of knowledge and interest, and different ways they prefer to consume information – blogs, podcasts, diagrams, videos, and so on. Tailoring your research message to this audience is like trying to make a pair of jeans that fit everyone perfectly.
But there is one way to make your research appeal to a broad audience – through stories.
As humans, we are hard-wired to absorb information through stories. Present a series of unconnected facts and people might forget. But bring them together in some sort of narrative, and they become much more memorable.
Stories come in all shapes and sizes, but there are fundamental patterns which underlie them all – and which can be applied to your research. In this article, we’ll look at the basics of how to do this, looking at one story arc and the key elements that make it so powerful.
The Hero’s Journey
The classic story structure we will look at is the ‘monomyth’, or ‘The Hero’s Journey’. In brief, it is a circular story which starts with a main character, the Hero, in their Known World – the environment they’re familiar with. They then travel into an Unknown World – a place different from what they understand – and face challenges along the way. Eventually, the Hero returns home to Known World, changed from their experience.
This structure might not sound familiar, but the stories which follow it will be. Think of films like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Disney’s Moana and Mulan, The Lord of the Rings – they all follow the Hero’s Journey.
What has this got to do with science? Well, your research can follow a similar story arc. The Hero (that’s you) starts off in the Known World (the background to your study), moves into the Unknown World (your investigations and experiments), and returns back to the start with new knowledge (your conclusions, and impact of your work).
How can you apply this to telling the story of your research?
First, identify your ‘Known World’, and how you fit into it. What’s the background to your research? What’s the status quo? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? Next, identify the ‘Unknown World’. What don’t we know? What’s the knowledge you’re trying to seek? What are you trying to change? What do you think is the solution to the problem? And then finally, return to the Known World. What have you learnt? Has the problem been solved? How has the status quo changed?
In many stories, there are two key events that have a crucial role. Let’s call them the Inciting Event, and the Climax.
The Inciting Event is what sets the Hero off on their journey. Think of Frodo finding the Ring. Or Luke Skywalker finding the message inside R2D2. Or the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. It’s what gets the story going – in fact, it’s the reason why there’s any story at all.
Thinking about your research – what’s your inciting event? Is there a specific moment which started the ball rolling for you? Perhaps it wasn’t an event, but a question which was raised that you just had to answer.
The second key event is the Climax. It’s the moment that all the action has been building up towards. Frodo throws the ring into the volcano. Luke destroys the Death Star. Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti. It’s the resolution of the Hero’s Journey, the moment the audience have been waiting for.
What’s the climax in your research? What was your “Eureka!” moment? What was the moment you found the knowledge or solution you were seeking?
Building upon these foundations
What we’ve discussed so far are the foundations of your story, on top of which everything else is built. Two more elements to consider are emotions and details.
Conveying emotion helps your audience feel invested in the story. They feel more connected to you as a person, and so to your journey – your research. How were you feeling during the key events in your research story? Anger? Sadness? Excitement? Confusion? And why?
Details can also help to bring the story to life. For example, you could illustrate the Known World with an anecdote – for example, the time you met a patient with the disease you now study. You can also add details to key events. Where were you when you started on your journey, or made your big discovery? What exactly were you doing? What time was it? Who was there with you?
It’s important to note that this is not about making stuff up. This is about looking at your research and finding the elements which can be retold as a story – not inventing them. By finding this story, you will be more able to connect your research with a wider audience.
Find your ‘Hero’s Journey’. What is the ‘Known World’ you’re leaving, and the ‘Unknown World’ you’re entering on your quest?
Identify the key events in your journey – the Inciting Event, and the Climax.
Add emotions and details to bring your story to life.
Further reading / listening
“The Science of Storytelling” by Will Storr is an excellent overview of the research into why humans find stories so powerful.
“Houston, We Have A Narrative” by Randy Oslon is an entertaining guide for scientists to use to tell their stories.
“The Story Collider” is a regular podcast featuring scientists telling engaging personal stories about themselves and their work.
This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Hindawi. The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.