Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…
“Don’t be such a poor storyteller”
By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story.
You begin with your raw material. For scientists this is your data, results, interviews, conclusions or realisations (admit it – there’s a lot). It may be in a jumble, or you may have it in the standard scientific structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Although that structure is perfect for the scientific world, it isn’t great for anyone else.
While working on his film, “Flock of Dodos”, Olson figured out that to go forwards with all of his raw material – he would have to go back to one of the simplest stories there is: there’s a man, a journey, a damsel, a dragon and a larger evil in the land. Then all of his raw material suddenly worked together like magic.
The trouble is, the simplicity of a good story is both its greatest strength in engaging people, but is also the biggest sticking point for those who cannot (or will not) suspend disbelief, and believe in the story they’re told.
Olson tells of his trouble when showing some of his films to scientists, how they simply could not stop themselves from constantly questioning what was occurring – “Could that really happen?” or, “I don’t think that detail is correct”. Olson goes so far as to call them the “designated drivers” of the storytelling audience, while everyone else sits there drinking in the wonder of the story.
I find this habit of constantly looking for flaws in everything a little inflexible. Yes, stories can be simple and tend to follow patterns we already know. But they’re not just for children. Most of us became scientists because we never quite lost our childlike fascination with the world. Scientific research begins with a simple curiosity that drives us to ask, “Why…?”. So why on earth can’t we accept the power and necessity of a good story sometimes?
The book then shifts to the challenge of Accuracy vs. Boredom. Scientists care most about how accurate something is. Almost everyone else cares slightly more about whether they’re bored or not. Olson goes so far as to call this, “The fundamental dilemma facing the world of science today”.
One way to overcome boredom is by introducing a source of tension or conflict. Something to think around or overcome. By denying any challenges made to science, scientists are missing out on a potential opportunity where they could fight the source of conflict and triumph!
Olson winds up this chapter by unreservedly championing the fact that,
“Being concise” is not the same as “dumbing down”.
Yes, you will have to work harder to get down to the relatable true essence of what your research is about. But surely you will become more confident and comfortable in your own understanding, and your ability to share what you do. So see if you can’t weave a little storyline through your work the next time you have to talk to those outside the academic sphere.
Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Happy Reading!