The power of stories

Science communicators from around the globe took the opportunity to explore the power of storytelling as a science communication tool during day two of the PCST conference in Malmö, Sweden (Thursday 26 June 2008).

“Believing is seeing,” said John Reid, a visual artist and lecturer at the Australia National University who captivated the audience with his story and visuals of the enigmatic fishman of South East Australia. He went on to tell the audience about using this story as a tool to encourage people to explore and experience the natural world. He also showed evidence of the power of this tory to help conserve some of Australia’s bushland.

Bienvenido Leon from the University of Navarra in Spain reported on their research into the role of narrative in high quality television documentaries. He explained the importance of elements such as conflict, resolution, proximity, adventure, discovery, a search for truth and a scientist as the hero in a science documentary using a narrative approach.

Both presenters agreed that telling stories work because they create a unity with the audience and involve people’s emotions – both things that are hard to achieve with most other science communication approaches. A good science story will start where people are and bring the contents of the story really close to them, show them how it affects their lives and get an emotional response from them. If it leads to some discussion, even some heated debate, it worked, Leon believes. “A good story also exercises the imagination,” Reid explained. “What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.” The power of imagination makes radio a powerful medium for storytelling.

Together with the audience the presenters debated the best way find a balance between scientific rigour and accuracy on the one hand, and entertainment value and clarity on the other. “If your story is too much about explaining the science, you will lose viewers,” Leon said. “On the other hand, if the story is only about entertainment and sensationalism, you may lose credibility.” He commented on how the pressures of getting good audience ratings are forcing documentary producers to move towards higher entertainment value.

While some stories may have cultural nuances and age sensitivities, the session participants agreed that a good story is able to take on a life of its own and travel across cultures. We need to invest more in using and studying this potentially powerful tool to share science across the globe, was the unanimous conclusion of this session.

Marina Joubert, Southern Science, South Africa, and SciDev.Net science communication advisor

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