An Astronomer’s Guide to Storytelling

In January 2015, Dr. Kaspar von Braun, an astrophysicist at Lowell Observatory, told his story at our Springer Nature Storytellers event in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. We asked him to share his experience and advice for future storytellers. His response can be summarized in two words; “Do it.”

On January 6, 2015, I had the honor of participating at a Springer Storyteller event in the old Town Hall in Seattle. There were about 300 people in attendance (some astronomers but largely members of the public), 5 speakers (all professional astronomers), and a team of MCs to warm up the crowd for the next speaker.AAS Show

As many astronomers can attest to, one tends to give a large number of talks in the field, normally around 45 min in length, supported by 30-60 PowerPoint slides that illustrate the subject. Not in this event, however. The goal was to tell stories, not present science: campfire over conference, so to speak. The only prop was a microphone on stage, which the speakers were told not to touch for noise reasons as the talks were being recorded as podcasts. There was no projector, no screen, no podium, no laser pointer, just you and the mic, and you had 10-15 min in which to tell your story, for which the speakers were encouraged to emphasize the personal and human aspects more than the science. I very clearly remember the moment of walking up to the microphone on stage with nothing in my hands, no computer waiting for me on some podium, and no projected talk title with my name underneath it. Adrenalin is a good drug.

To be honest, this challenge was one of the fondest memories I have of that evening: memorize a short, personal, and coherent story, and thereby not using any props at all. The single best aspect of the evening, however, was the quality of the talks given by the other speakers — I went last, and as I listened to the other speakers, I felt increasingly inadequate the closer it came time for me to talk. It turns out that I was not the only one thinking like that. Later, as we speakers enjoyed a “we did it” drink together, we all confided the exact same emotion I had felt: “Your stories are so terrific! What am I doing here???” There were serious masterpieces where you could feel that the story does not often see the light of day due to its very personal nature. Every astronomer goes through some trials and tribulations, but also quite funny experiences, on the way to being a full-time scientist, and all presentations one tends to give along the way are, by request and necessity, practically only about the science. To glimpse an insight into the personal histories and experiences of some fellow astronomers was a big honor to me and hopefully to the public audience — this is very, very rare.

I would be amiss if I did not mention the quality of the overall setting — the preparation of the event was exquisite, the mood of the audience was fantastic, and the little warm-up skits performed by the MC pair in between our talks were of high, stand-up comedian level. It was truly a humbling and at the same time adrenalin-filled experience, and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is not afraid to speak in public. The Storyteller team did a great job of preparing me to give a talk like that weeks ahead of the event, but at the same time never tried to influence what I was going to say. They just gave advice on what to emphasize.

To offer advice to anyone contemplating doing this — in two words: do it. And when you do, focus on the personal aspects and let the science take a back seat.

Interested in becoming a Springer Nature Storyteller? Visit our pitch page to submit your idea and learn more about the program and our upcoming fall shows!

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