The power of *****

Tricky thing, language.

Imagine that there was a communication tool that had an almost magical hold over learners of all ages and cultures.

Imagine how useful such a technique would be.

Imagine how frustrating it would be when working with science teachers, researchers and communicators not to be able to properly discuss this silver bullet. All because of the associations evoked whenever you simply mention its name.


There. I said it. What does it make you think of?

On the face of it stories can seem the antithesis of science. In my training courses I hear recurring objections. Stories are works of fiction. I can’t tell stories. Stories are childish. Stories over-simplify. Stories manipulate. I used to share much of this baggage about stories too.

Yet whether you’re trying to interest, explain, convince, or create memories, stories are unreasonably effective to the human brain. Yes, it isn’t fair.

When engaging non-specialists stories win. Always.

Get over it. Use it.

So what do I mean by “story”? Most formal definitions of story come down to:

“A sequence of events in which characters you care about face obstacles in trying to reach their goals.”

If you unpack this bland definition the secrets of narrative spill out.

Characters. Empathy. Curiosity. Conflict. Escalation. Resolution.

These are the irresistible ingredients we all crave when we try to make sense of our world. The deceptively simple power of stories lies in the many different ways that you can cook these elements together within the potency of the story framework.

Fundamentally, story is about structure, not about content.

  • How can you craft your demo into an edge-of-the-seat conflict between you and your telegraphed outcome?
  • Does your lesson or show flow as a gripping narrative journey, or are you just telling ’em what you’re going tell ’em, telling ’em, and then telling ’em what you’ve told them?
  • How can you share the roller-coaster of pain and joy scientists felt in making this discovery?
  • What’s the human story behind your fascination in this topic?
  • How can you reveal the awe-inspiring meta-stories of science – the overarching concepts that unify seemingly diverse contexts, the deep process ideas which underpin science as a way of searching for patterns?

I’m not arguing for everything to be communicated through story, but rather that stories are the most powerful known structure through which to communicate ideas.

What I’m asking is to give stories a chance.

3 thoughts on “The power of *****”

  1. Confession: in training courses, I often use the word ‘narrative.’ The word I really mean is indeed ‘story,’ but as you say, Paul, that often provokes images of ‘Once upon a time…’ type constructions in my audiences’ minds. I don’t want that, so I use a word none of us really understand instead.

    I find the hardest part of talking about stories to scientists (and teachers) is helping them recognise that it’s about the structure of the argument, not about characters. With Get Set Demonstrate, the BSA asked a panel of ‘experts’ to comment on a range of demos, including questions prompting them to think about how the demo could be included in a story. Now there they really did mean ‘narrative structure’ rather than story, but semantics aside: a rather depressing number of responses suggested things like “The elephant’s toothpaste demo needs a cuddly elephant, then it could be a great story.”

    It’s not, I think, that scientists are confused about what stories are. It’s that they’ve been trained – over a period of years – to evaluate and accept information when its presented as a set of facts and evidence. From the scientist’s perspective, anything else isn’t scientific. Stories, therefore, aren’t an appropriate means of conveying ideas about science. Ouch.

    What’s overlooked is that evidence-based delivery of ideas is a specialist skill, and that we’re usually working with non-specialist audiences. Different techniques are required.

  2. Yes, “narrative” is a good work-around – fewer preconceptions.

    I agree, Jonathan, the difficulty of getting across how stories depend on structure.

    What about “narrative structure” as a term to refer to these techniques?

  3. “Narrative structure” is exactly what I use, yes. The other question I find particularly useful is “Why do I care?”. That immediately shifts us into an emotional situation, and hence usually a narrative one too.

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