Finding the Right Words

How people communicate complex science is just as important as what they communicate. 

By Sarah Reisert | October 11, 2016
Alfred Hitchcock in 1960

Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Psycho, 1960. You don’t have to be crazy to appreciate a good story about science.

Paramount Pictures

Randy Olson. Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. University of Chicago Press, 2015. 256 pp. $60, cloth; $20, paper.

Once there was a small town whose people divided themselves into different occupations. Some were farmers, some were weavers, some were merchants, and some were thinkers. In order to think better, the thinkers built themselves a beautiful tower where they could sit and think together. They thought about many things and learned much about life in their small town and the world beyond.

One day, after many, many years, the thinkers learned of an imminent catastrophe. “Oh, no!” they said. “We must alert the townspeople!” The thinkers rushed out of their tower and into the public square, waving their arms and telling of the impending disaster. But the townspeople stared blankly at them, confused and unable to understand. The thinkers had been in their tower for so long, speaking only among themselves, that they had developed their own language, one foreign to the townspeople. The thinkers couldn’t explain the looming catastrophe because they didn’t have the words.

Pick your catastrophe: ocean acidification, sea-level rise, a resurgence of diseases once nearly eradicated by vaccines. How can scientists working in these areas help prevent disaster when they don’t speak the language of the people? Randy Olson, a former professor of marine biology turned Hollywood screenwriter and the author of Houston, We Have a Narrative, believes he has the key: storytelling.

Scientists might well be wary of storytelling, especially when proposed by a Hollywood screenwriter. They might be reminded of every movie “based on a true story” that ended up bearing no resemblance to the true story. In 2013 MIT neurobiologist Yarden Katz wrote an editorial in Nature Methods titled “Against Storytelling of Scientific Results,” in which he made clear what he believed to be the problem with narrative: “Great storytellers embellish and conceal information to evoke a response in their audience.” That sure sounds like the antithesis of science, which should be based solely on facts presented in their entirety.

But here’s the problem with dismissing storytelling outright: narratives do a far better job of engaging the brain than lists of facts. Want proof? In 2008 Uri Hasson of Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute recruited volunteers to lie inside MRI scanners and watch movie clips. Their brains were most engaged while watching the narrative clips, such as an episode from the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But when the volunteers watched a clip with no story, such as a video of people wandering aimlessly around a park, their brain activity was considerably less.

The reality is this: people respond to narrative. It’s why they can sit through 10 hours of Breaking Bad and still want more, but yawn after 20 minutes listening to speakers at an academic conference. Scientists might wish that the general public would take the time to pick through a complicated scientific study and learn the vocabulary, context, and nuances, but that’s not how the world is. So let’s deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. On with the storytelling!

Olson boils down a science story’s three basic parts, which he calls “And, But, Therefore,” or ABT. “And” is a few facts that help set the stage for the issue being discussed (as in “this fact and this fact”). “But” is the turning point: that’s the way it was before, but now we have learned something new. “Therefore” is how it all works out at the end, knowing what we know from the “And” and the “But.” (I found it helpful to think in terms of setting, problem, and resolution rather than ABT). I used this format in the story that opens this review:

AND: The town, the thinkers, their long residence in the tower, and the town’s approaching doom were described.
BUT: The thinkers no longer spoke the same language as the townspeople.
THEREFORE: The catastrophe could not be averted.

It’s simple, but it works. And speaking of simple, when did simplicity become a four-letter word? Why do we believe that simple things are of less value than complicated ones? It’s just not the case. For example, in 2005 UCLA psychologist Daniel M. Oppenheimer conducted a hilariously named study—“Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” The result? The more convoluted a text, the less intelligent the author, according to Oppenheimer’s test subjects. A National Science Foundation grant reviewer admits that “clear and succinct grant applications are usually the most compelling.” The federal government even has a whole office devoted to encouraging the use of plain language to help citizens understand what the government is trying to tell them. Yes, science is undoubtedly complicated. But one of the most complicated human beings ever to live, Leonardo da Vinci, once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Not all research requires a narrative approach, Olson concedes. After all, replacing technical language and turning research into a meaningful story demands a lot of work from scientists. “If [your audience is] just the seven people in your field who know all the material at the same depth as you, then fine,” writes Olson. In such cases, researchers may employ academese to their hearts’ desire. But for scientists talking to or writing for the scientific community more broadly, and especially for those trying to reach the general public, clear, easy-to-follow language is a must. Scientists won’t master these skills in a day, but then no one mastered chemistry in a day either.

In 2013 Olson was invited to serve on a panel at a meeting of oceanographers. The panel’s organizer asked Olson to help two experts on sea-level rise redo their presentations. But as soon as Olson reached out, the experts pushed back. “We’re busy. Our presentations are fine. We’ve given them before. There’s just no need for this.” After some back-and-forth, however, the scientists agreed to try something new. That started with changing the panel title from “Responding to Sea Level Rise” to “Sea Level Rise: New, Certain, and Everywhere.” Each keyword in the title was told through a story crafted on the ABT template. The results were tremendously positive, and for months afterward people who had attended the presentation approached Olson to thank him.

But, undeniably, it took work. In the six weeks Olson worked with the panelists, they had four conference calls, several one-on-one calls, dozens of e-mails flying back and forth, and two in-person rehearsals. Olson compares storytelling to a muscle: something that needs to be exercised repeatedly in order for muscle memory to stick. “You can no more take a one-day storytelling workshop and emerge as a person well versed in narrative dynamics than you can complete a one-hour weightlifting workout and expect to walk out buff,” he says.

There’s more to Houston, We Have a Narrative than the ABT: Olson also provides guidelines for creating engaging paragraphs, ways to ferret out the narrative theme of a story, and common pitfalls to avoid. But for the purposes of this review the ABT is a simple way (see what I did there?) to start thinking about how ideas are communicated.

In the end it comes down to this: will you be speaking the same language as the townspeople when catastrophe threatens?