In this blog, we’ll look at some basic storytelling techniques, and how medical research charities can apply them when talking about the scientists they fund.
As humans, we are hard-wired to absorb information through stories. Present a series of unconnected facts, and people might forget. Yet, bring them together into a narrative, and they become much more memorable.
Another key aspect of stories is that they tend to have a main character. Charities are, of course, well-versed in using personal stories to get across why their work is vital. And audiences connect more readily with one person’s story than stats of thousands or millions.
Therefore, it’s absolutely natural (and essential) for medical research charities to apply storytelling techniques to talking about the research they fund.
I’ve written previously for the open access publisher Hindawi about how scientists can use storytelling techniques when talking about their own work.
In this blog post, we’ll expand on this a little to look at how medical research charities can apply the same techniques to talking about the scientists they fund.
Let’s get cracking with a basic story structure, and the key elements that make it so powerful.
The Hero’s Journey
One classic story structure is the ‘monomyth’, or ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Joseph Campbell first described the monomyth as a common template for all stories across different cultures.
The full structure (as shown in the picture above) contains many elements. But the basics of the Hero’s Journey is that it’s a circular story which starts with the main character, the Hero, in their Known World – the environment they’re familiar with. They then travel into an Unknown World – a place different from what they understand, and face challenges along the way. Eventually, the Hero returns home to Known World, changed from their experience.
This structure might not sound familiar, but the stories which follow it will be. Think of films like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Disney’s Moana and Mulan, and The Lord of the Rings – they all follow the Hero’s Journey.
So what has this got to do with science? Science can follow a similar story arc to The Hero’s Journey.
The scientist is The Hero. They start in the Known World (the background to their study). Then move into the Unknown World (investigations and experiments). And return to the start with new knowledge (conclusions, and impact of their work).
To apply this to your charity’s research, we first need to gather the details which make up important elements. This can be done through interviews with the researcher(s) in question. And through gathering details of their work in grant application forms, annual reports, research papers, conference presentations, and so on.
Let’s look at how to do this in practice. To make things a bit simpler, let’s imagine our charity is talking about a scientist, Dr Jo Bloggs, who has published a paper about a discovery her team have made.
The known / unknown world
First, identify the ‘Known World’, and how Dr Bloggs’ work fits into it. Remember, this is world as it currently is, the status quo, the situation we find ourselves in right now. Through an interview with Dr Bloggs or by reading the background to her research, we want to find out:
- What’s the background to her research?
- What’s the status quo?
- And what’s the problem she’s trying to solve?
Next, identify the ‘Unknown World’. This is where the ‘action’ happens in our story. It’s where Dr Bloggs leaves behind what we know and embarks on a quest to find something new. We want to find out:
- What don’t we know?
- The problem with the status quo?
- What does Dr Bloggs think is the solution to the problem?
- What’s the knowledge she’s trying to seek?
- And, what is she trying to change?
Then finally, return to the Known World. The story has come full circle, but the world will never be the same again, because of Dr Bloggs’ work. So, we want to know:
- What did she learn?
- Has the problem been solved?
- How has the status quo changed?
In many stories, there are two key events that have a crucial role. Let’s call them the Inciting Event, and the Climax.
The Inciting Event is what sets the Hero off on their journey. Think of Frodo being given the Ring by Bilbo. Luke Skywalker finding the message inside R2D2. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz. Or Harold and Kumar getting the munchies. This moment is what gets the story going. In fact, it’s the reason why there’s any story at all.
How do we find the inciting event in Dr Jo Bloggs’ story? Well, there might be some details in the introduction of the paper she’s published, talking about previous work which inspired the current research. However, to get some of the specific details (more on why that matters later), you could interview Dr Bloggs and ask her questions along the lines of:
- How did this project start?
- What led you to get involved in this question?
- Take us back to the beginning of this project, when did this project come about?
- What was the first step you made in this work?
Ideally, we’re aiming for a specific moment, or event, which for Dr Bloggs meant that it was inevitable that she had to do this research.
The second key event is the Climax. It’s the moment that all the action has been building up towards. Frodo throws the ring into the volcano. Luke destroys the Death Star. Moana returns the heart to Te Fiti. It’s the resolution of the Hero’s Journey. The moment that the story has been building towards and the audience have been waiting for.
Again, there’ll be some details about this in Dr Jo Bloggs’ paper in the Results section – definitive proof that Protein X interacts with Protein Y, or that Gene Z is involved in disease relapse, or whatever. But really, it would be great to hear from Dr Bloggs about the moment beyond that Figure 5C in the paper.
Questions you could use in an interview could include something like:
- “What was the first sign you’d got the results you’d been hoping for?”
- “When did you first realise your plan had worked?”
- “Let’s talk about Figure 5C (the ‘definitive proof’ figure), when did you see this for the first time?”
Ideally, we’re hoping for that “Eureka!” moment – the moment that Dr Bloggs found the knowledge or solution she was seeking.
We’ve got the start of the journey, and its climax. But if Frodo had simply just chucked the Ring into the nearest volcano as soon as he’d got it, The Lord of the Rings would be pretty boring. We need some action – or more specifically, some hurdles along the way that our Hero must overcome.
Research never goes to plan. There will undoubtedly be some things that didn’t go well for Dr Jo Bloggs (our Hero). And there will be problems that she didn’t anticipate, results that poked a big hole in her theory, or even minor mishaps with a centrifuge.
These are the struggles that make journey perilous, the climax sweeter, and the Hero all the more heroic.
Of course, these hurdles won’t be in the research paper – we’ll need to identify them in an interview, with questions along the lines of:
- “How did the work go? Was it all plain sailing?”
- “What was the hardest part of this project?”
- “Were there any setbacks?”
- “What hurdles did you have to overcome?”
Add the sparkle
So far we’ve discussed the foundations of your story, on top of which everything else is built. Two more elements to consider are emotions and details.
Research can be very confusing or mysterious to a lot of people. That’s why people don’t really connect with stories about research discoveries, beyond a feeling of awe. However, everyone knows what it’s like to feel disheartened, confused, angry, elated, or disappointed. Or so excited you hug and kiss the person next to you. By conveying how Dr Jo Bloggs feels about her work, the audience will feel so much more connected to her and her research (and by extension, your charity).
Identify emotions through questions like:
- “How does it feel to have helped make ___ happen?”
- “What have you learnt along the way?”
- “What was going through your head when…”
- or simply “How did that make you feel?”
Details bring a story to life. Without them, stuff just happens. “Good guy defeats a bad guy” is the no-details plot to Star Wars, but it could be pretty much any other film.
Yet with these details, the story becomes much more vivid. Your audience get sucked into the moments and the world that Dr Jo Bloggs lives and works in.
This is why it’s important to ask about the details, the specific moments we discussed earlier. Try and get as specific as possible. When they had that idea, where were they? Who was there with them? When was it? And when they got the phone call from their colleague with the successful results, were they at home, in the office, or on holiday?
It’s important to note that this is not about making stuff up. This is about looking at the research and finding the elements which can be retold as The Hero’s Journey story. Not inventing them.
This might sound like a lot to get out of an interview. And maybe you’ll find out that the start of the project doesn’t make a great story. That’s ok. But going in with an open mind, looking for these details (and prompting with questions where necessary) will reveal some storytelling gold every now and then.
Here’s some further reading and listening that I’ve found really helpful, if you’d like to learn more.
- ‘The Science of Storytelling’ by Will Storr is an excellent overview of the research into why humans find stories so powerful.
- ‘Houston, We Have A Narrative’ by Randy Olson is an entertaining guide for scientists to use to tell their stories.
- The Open Notebook is an excellent website to help science journalists find and tell great stories. They have a great book called ‘The Craft of Science Writing’, which I found really fascinating.
- ‘Telling Science Stories’ by Martin Angler is a much deeper dive into storytelling in science, with a lot more detail about story structures. I found it a bit of slog to read to be perfectly honest, but it’s certainly comprehensive.
- ‘The Story Collider’ is a regular podcast featuring scientists telling engaging personal stories about themselves and their work.