Practical Storytelling Series (Part 2): Numbers as Narrators

The following is the second installation in a three-part series on practical storytelling, helping to give researchers, scientists and authors some actionable tips and background to begin to craft their own science stories. For more information, please contact us here at Before the Abstract.

Written by Alexander Brown

As researchers you deal with a large amount of data, much of which is likely discipline-specific. And as you move down the primrose path of scientific storytelling it may seem—at times—that incorporating those cold, hard facts and figures may be challenging when working in this format. But as you know, numbers tell stories of their own, and finding a way to work them in to our narratives is an important mission of the storyteller. As one of my former professors would say, stories are the “Trojan Horse” for data.trojan-horse

In a 1969 study in Southern California,* researchers wanted to examine how stories and narratives could aid recall of facts and figures. They divided a group of participants in half. The participants in one group were given a list of 12 nouns to memorize, while those of the other group were asked to string these same nouns into a story. After a brief amount of time each participant was asked to recall the words they were given, and at first, there was little difference. Both recalled upward of 90 percent of the nouns. But after only a small amount of additional time, the recall of those in the group that strung these words together into a short, 1-to-2-minute story remembered far more. Recall rates were comparable at somewhere below 20 percent for those who memorized the words, but in the 90th-percentile for those who crafted a brief narrative. Can you imagine if you could get audiences to remember six to seven times more after hearing you speak, just by using a story?

If you listen to the earnings calls of large, publicly-traded companies, the c-suite of these institutions frequently interpret these figures through a narrative lens for investors: “In early spring we introduced product X, to which we saw some initial resistance from the market. But by the end of the quarter it had caught on and helped contribute greatly to our beating the forecast. We expect this trend to continue.” In essence they are using a mini-narrative to make meaning, provide context and persuade investors and financial press to interpret their results in a particular fashion.

A fantastic example of this in the sciences comes from Hans Rosling, Professor at Karolinska Institute. Dr. Rosling is a Swedish MD, academic, statistician and public speaker who gave an excellent TED talk using storytelling for context. In just the first five-odd minutes the audience had an incredibly nuanced and contextual understanding of the world’s HIV-AIDS crisis, and its evolution over time.

As with any occasion in which we use storytelling, the idea is to reach our audiences in a way that is emotional and empathic. This helps us to circumvent our natural inclination for skepticism by leveraging our natural inclination toward narrative. And an easy way to begin to do this is to start with what we know best—our own experiences.

As the live events, podcasts and written stories here at Before the Abstract aim to do, humanizing and personalizing your own story behind the science is a wonderful way to being to set up the frame through which your audience will interpret your results. Why did you seek the data you explored? Why were you interested in studying this particular topic? Moreover, what are the real implications of your work, and how do those dense numbers and stats support this? If you use narrative and the tell the stories behind the data, you will begin to reach far greater numbers of audiences and audience members, and that can only be a boon to what you are doing in the field or in the lab.

Alexander Brown has worked in public relations and communications for more than 15 years, and has coached dozens of storytellers including c-suite executives, graduate students and researchers. During his time at Springer Nature he presented on this and other communications topics for both internal and external audiences, including customers, fellow Springer Nature employees and industry trade organization members. Alex was also a co-founder of Springer Nature Storytellers, and the Before the Abstract platform.

*Bower, Gordon H. & Clark, Michael C. “Narrative Stories as Mediators for Serial Learning.” Psychonomic Science, 1969, Vol. 14 (4).

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