Telling the story of scientific research

“Every experiment is a great story. Every scientist’s life is a heroic story. There’s an attempt to achieve something of value, there’s the thrill of knowing the unknown against obstacles, and the ultimate outcome is a great payoff—if it can be achieved. Now that’s drama!” –Alan Alda in an interview with Claudia Dreyfus for the New York Times (February 24, 2014)

For many researchers, telling a great story can be a challenge, but a group of two-dozen faculty, post-docs, and graduate students at the University of Oregon found the process got easier after spending two days sharpening their communication skills in a workshop led by faculty from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

The workshop was made possible by support from several organizations at the UO, including the Science Literacy Program, STEM CORE, and a program grant from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

At the outset of the workshop, the group’s stories of developing new cancer treatments, implementing lifesaving self-defense programs for women, or braving melting glaciers to gather data about climate change were getting lost in a flood of details about nonlinear regressions, parameterization of ice marginal plumes, and the molecular structure of cyclophosphamide.

After diving into a stream of different sessions led by three faculty members from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science—Louisa Johnson, Christie Nicholson and Rory O’Connor—the group found their stories were beginning to take shape.

“Over two days it was pretty impressive to see how my group members grew in their ability to explain (their research),” said Elly Vandegrift, associate director of the UO’s Science Literacy Program, and an organizer of the event. “It was very powerful to have (so much) time devoted to thinking on our feet about our science.”

Vandegrift, along with Bryan Rebar, associate director of UO’s STEM CORE program, organized the workshop at the UO after hearing actor and writer Alan Alda speak at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“I was impressed by Alan Alda’s storytelling and passion for helping scientists learn how to better communicate,” Vandegrift said. “I was even more convinced that learning how to communicate science well is a skill that could help in the classroom and other less formal interactions.” 

Alda, who is probably best known for his work on the television series M*A*S*H and The West Wing, founded the Center for Communicating Science with help from Stony Brook University after hosting eleven seasons of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS. After interviewing hundreds of scientists, Alda was convinced that many researchers had wonderful stories to share, but that they could use some help telling them.

Drawing from his training as an actor, Alda was curious to see if teaching scientists communications skills through improvisation could help them become more effective teachers and better advocates for their research.

Improvisation is a key component of the training, which included everything from discussions about distilling a message to opportunities to hone media interview skills. Researchers pantomimed activities they were passionate about and described favorite family photographs before an audience. The training was designed to encourage scientists to think on their feet, create a dramatic storyline on the fly and communicate wordlessly—all valuable skills for translating complex concepts into compelling stories.

“The improvisation sessions were super fun, but applicable in ways that I didn’t expect,” Vandegrift said, “I personally want more opportunities to practice and think about how to continue to communicate more clearly with my audience.”

One of the most common challenges for scientists is developing a clear message that does not oversimplify or overgeneralize their research. The workshop taught researchers how to tackle this challenge using different exercises. When asked to translate a technical description of a baseball game, the participants quickly came up against the “curse of knowledge,” or forgetting what someone with no background in a subject might know. The exercise forced the group to break down their explanation into a simple but accurate account of the game.

Another valuable lesson involved the use of telling details to make a story come alive. Participants focused on using vivid language—for example, “walking the Chihuahua” instead of “walking the dog”— and worked on constructing a logical progression of ideas that allowed a story to unfold effortlessly.

The second day of the workshop focused on sharpening media interview skills. Groups met in the studios of the Center for Media Education and Educational Technologies in Knight Library on the UO campus to practice speaking on camera.

With only a couple minutes to get their point across to the audience, the researchers drew from their experience distilling a message and stuck to their objective, even when the interviewer tried to draw them off message.

From the perspective of the participants, the workshop was a success. After watching the recordings of their media interviews, they could universally see improvement. Their responses were more succinct, their analogies easier to understand, and they were beginning to form stories that connected their research to topics and ideas that their audience understood and cared about.

For the faculty of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the workshop is a success if they leave scientists with the confidence to guide conversations about what their evidence supports—or doesn’t—in order to help politicians, policymakers, and the general public understand the importance and significance of scientific research.

Of course, communication is a skill that can always be improved upon, and Vandegrift says there are more trainings on the horizon.

“There is interest in continuing the conversation about how we communicate, developing a regional network, and finding other ways to provide training to a wider audience,” she said.