Using the Potential of Anecdotes to Communicate Science

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Story telling by way of anecdotes is a powerful tool that has been used throughout human history. Anecdotes are short, amusing or interesting stories about a real incidents or persons. However, often times scientists are reluctant to use them for fear of losing the audience or sounding unintelligent, particularly when speaking to colleagues. There is a tendency in science communication to revert to the format of the written word, most commonly the format of the generic scientific paper (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). The problem is, that when using a written document as an outline for spoken communication it does not tell an effective story. Scientific papers are designed to convey information in a manner so the reader can scrutinize the experiment and reproduce the results if needed. Scientific papers do not lead from one succinct thought to the next, pausing now and again to reflect and summarize the story. Papers are a compilation of facts, results and conclusions strewn together to summarize experiments. This is part of the reason they are difficult to read and understand, particularly if you are not familiar with the writing style.

Now some of you reading this may stop and think “why would you want to tell a story when speaking about science? the results and data speak for themselves!” But that line of reasoning is ignoring why people get interested in science in the first place. Scientists, science writers, and educators of science care about the world around them due in large part to CURIOSITY. Curiosity is the reason why anyone would put up with the long hours, low wages, and years of education to pursue a career in science. The fact is, people become involved in science because  they have motivation to ask questions, they want to learn about the world, and they enjoy the understanding of something new. The joy of learning new things and understanding how the universe works around us is the true reward of science. This shouldn’t come a shocking revelation to anyone, throughout history humans have been driven to learn about the environment they exist in to survive. We as humans are inherently driven by a strong sense of curiosity. As a communicator and public speaker not taking advantage of curiosity is a major fault.

But how does story telling play into science communication and public speaking?Communicating your work and getting an audience to retain information, is literally the most important thing you can do as a scientist. It doesn’t matter if you unlocked the key to the question of the universe (42) if no one knows about it or no one can understand it, you really haven’t accomplished anything. Science is a knowledge base built on the work of all the people who came before us, and can only continue if our new scientific contributions are able to be understood and shared. Communicating science is therefore all about getting others curious about your work. Curious people will put in all sorts of effort to try understand and learn about a topic.  Once you have sparked the curiosity of your audience then it is your job to get out-of-the-way of the awesomeness of your work and let the story tell itself!

Following the format of a scientific paper on the other hand, (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) is utter death to the awesomeness of your scientific story. The main reason why it does not work, is that the article is designed to be read not spoken. Journal articles are a manifesto of why you did the work, how you did it, and by what it means. If you try to recite that paper in a talk you are essentially (whether you realize it or not) reading out loud to your audience.  Scientific papers give the reader the ability to stop and ponder your words, study your figures, reread difficult parts, and absorb the material. In the spoken world you have none of these luxuries. Timing and meter is very important  in spoken communication and this is why the anecdote is so good at conveying information. The story of the journey to discover something new in science is what the audience will find interesting, and if done right will get them curious about your research. When you are preparing for your next talk try to remember what got you excited and curious when you first heard the idea, and how excited when you saw the results. These feelings and thoughts need to be intertwined with your presentation so that the audience can follow along and get the same sense of enjoyment.

Let’s Examine an Example of Changing Text into a Anecdote From a Recent Publication in Nature

“The question of whether the AMOC has always controlled or at times only responded to climatic oscillations during the last glacial period still awaits full clarification despite its fundamental role in climatology. During the Holocene epoch deep-water formation has been active in the North Atlantic and North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied a large fraction of the deep Atlantic basin down to ~5,000 m depth (a circulation mode often referred to as the ‘warm’, or ‘interglacial’, circulation mode). However, the existence of different AMOC modes in the past has been proposed, mostly on the basis of nutrient tracers such as stable carbon isotopes. … Here we reconstruct changes in the AMOC based on combined extraction of seawater radiogenic neodymium (Nd) isotopes and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) … from sediments recovered in the deep subtropical northwest Atlantic “

Exracted from: Böhm, E., Lippold, J., Gutjahr, M., Frank, M., Blaser, P., Antz, B., Fohlmeister, J., Frank, N., Andersen, M. B., & Deininger, M. (2015). Strong and deep Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during the last glacial cycle. Nature, 517(7532), 73-76.

There is nothing wrong with the writing of the above paragraph since the reader can spend as much time as they want to reread and understand it. But as spoken word it doesn’t flow or begin a story very well. One way to rephrase this passage as an anecdote could be like this;

It is obvious to even the newest graduate student that  ocean currents like the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC) are important in the Earth’s climate system. But our research team and even many other climate scientists have been struggling to understand how AMOC plays a role in climate through the last glacial cycles. We began to formulate questions about what AMOC was actually doing in the past. For example in the Holocene research has shown that North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied the basin down to at least 5000 meters. This is considered by some to represent “warm or interglacial” modes of circulation. We wondered how reliable the history of these circulation modes were, since they were based on data from nutrient tracers and stable carbon isotopes. We got together and wondered, what if there was another way to get at the history of AMOC. Given our group’s expertise with radiogenic isotopes we hatched a plan to test neodymium and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) of sediments to reconstruct AMOC history. So we mobilized quickly and were soon heading out to the best field site to suit our experiment, in the subtropical northwest Atlantic.

Both passages relate essentially the same thing, but the above paragraph is acceptable for a paper but not a talk. Meanwhile, the below paragraph is good for a presentation but certainly not a paper.

Another Example From a Famous Modern Storyteller, Ira Glass

Finally we can turn to an expert storyteller, Ira Glass. As the host of This American Life (TAL), he gathers an estimated 2.1 million listeners each week. Although not everyone has to love the show to get the point, there is no denying that Ira is good at telling an anecdote. So check out the video below to get some more ideas on how to use anecdotes in your next presentation.

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