Why is the Why Difficult for Scientists?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, Karen McLeod (Interim Executive Director of COMPASS) asks scientists why, when their passion for their job is so evident in the work that they do, they rarely share their sentiments with the rest of the world.

Why Ask Why

If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle and embrace the Philosophy in your PhD for more effective #scicomm? Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important.

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

*This article was originally published on October 8, 2014. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.


A Seismologist’s Guide to Storytelling

On December 15, 2016, Springer Nature Storytellers hosted a show in conjunction with the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Susan Hough shared a moving story of her experience in Port-au-Prince, where she was sent to lead a deployment of seismometers in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Just last week was the anniversary of this devastating natural disaster and here Susan reflects on her experience as a Springer Nature Storyteller, sharing her involvement in the aftermath of the earthquake. Stay tuned for her podcast coming soon! 

Written by Susan Hough

I didn’t hesitate to say yes when offered the opportunity to be one of the storytellers at the Springer Nature sponsored Story Collider event at the 2016 AGU meeting.  I’ve been telling stories of one sort or another since I first learned how to use a pencil.

It did not escape me that, while all of my past storytelling has been on paper, this time it would be on stage.  At the beginning of my career my response would likely have been different;  even a straightforward 13-minute AGU talk was terrifying enough.  With enough preparation I could make it through talks, but I always felt like I had checked my brain at the door.  The worst part was dealing with, or rather not dealing with, questions afterwards.

But over the nearly three decades (gulp) since receiving my PhD, I’ve mostly gotten over the stage jitters, so the idea of telling a personal story on stage seemed like a reasonable thing to agree to.

As a seismologist who has pursued a variety of projects including chasing earthquakes to distant corners of the globe, I’ve had my share of field adventures, and several possible stories came to mind immediately.  Then Lucy Frisch sent along a link to Aerin Jacob’s story, “Stuck in the Serengeti.”  I listened, enthralled, as Jacob recounted her adventures.  My immediate thought afterwards, was, compared to cheetahs and machine guns in the Serengeti, I got nothing.

But one nanosecond later I knew which story I wanted to tell.  After bouncing the idea off of Lucy, the writer in me sprang into action.  Within about an hour I had put together a  first draft.  The first part of the story was easy to write, a simple matter of describing events.  The closing of the story—the take-away lessons from my (mis-)adventures in Haiti—didn’t come quite as easily.   When I had a chance to talk by phone to Lucy and Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, in early November, I read through my draft, noting that the ending still needed some work.  Erin made a couple of terrific suggestions; whether or not I did her ideas justice, I’m not sure, but I tried, and could see how they improved the story.

The ending fell into place over the next few weeks as I continued to think about, and practice, the story.  The words hadn’t fallen into place immediately because, even though my story had happened six years ago and I’ve thought about it any number of times since then, it was the first time I had tried to actually articulate, and share, the lessons I had learned from it.  Before any story can be shared, it has to be crafted, a process that can stretch one’s thoughts towards new horizons – in particular if one is challenged to tell a different, more personal kind of story than scientists are used to telling.  The first revelation of my Story Collider experience wasn’t in the sharing, but in the crafting.

The sharing part turned out to be a little more than I’d bargained for.  I realized that my nonchalance about telling a story on stage had been premature.  Sure, I had several decades of talks under my belt, but this time there would be no slides, or notes.  Just me with a microphone, alone on that stage.  I was not blessed with a photographic memory, and as soon as I started practicing telling my story without a draft in front of me, I realized what a challenge it would be.   And so I practiced, and practiced, and practiced.  My morning drive to the office takes a little more than 10 minutes, so I’d tell my story to myself as I drove to work.   It became the bedtime story I told to myself at night.  Once at AGU, the walk from my hotel to the Moscone Center was just long enough to run through the story in my head.  Even when I knew that I knew the story like the back of my hand, I practiced and practiced and practiced.  The only thing I had to fear, of course, was fear itself: the reappearance of my old nemesis, stage fright, that would cause my brain to fly out the window.

Then the big day arrived.  I stood up and started to tell my story, at a venue that turned out to be, strangely enough, outside…only to be interrupted by children talking loudly in the audience, which made me lose my train of thought completely.  I slinked off the stage and hid behind a wall, dumb-struck, mortified, and utterly disappointed that all the practice had been for naught.

Never in my entire life have I been so overjoyed to wake up, and be able to laugh at my creative rendition of the classic college nightmare.  When the time came to stand and deliver for realz, the hours of practice were not for naught; the story was nearly seamless, and seemed to be well-received by the intrepid crowd that had braved the stormy weather to attend.

The second revelation of the experience came afterwards, when I was contacted about putting together a short article based on my story. I realized that some stories aren’t meant to be shared on paper, they’re meant to be shared out loud; precisely the personal kinds of stories that scientists don’t usually tell.  The final revelation followed immediately, namely an appreciation of the genius of the Story Collider mission to bring science to a broader audience by bringing scientists to a broader audience.  As people.  Alone on that stage.  No slides.  No props.  Those terrifying 13 minutes were not only, hands down, the highlight of the meeting for me, but I expect will reach a broader audience than anything else I said or did at that week.  The only thing I’m left wondering is, when can I do it again?

Do you want to be a Springer Nature Storyteller in 2017? If you have a story you’d like to share, whether at one of our live shows or written and featured here on Before the Abstract, please get in touch through the instructions on our Pitch Page.


Practical Storytelling Series (Part 3): How to Make Your Research a Cinderella Story

The following is the third and final 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

You probably recall sometime early in life sitting in an elementary-school classroom and learning about how to compose a story. Beginning, middle, and end. Right? For many of us, those lessons in primary and secondary school, and maybe even in undergrad, were a very long time ago and at an earlier stage than advanced science curricula. But as we begin to craft stories of our own, and especially if we are doing so with professional goals in mind, it is helpful to review the basics of effective story structure.

A basic story structure has—you guessed it—a beginning, a middle and an end. However, if we examine the practices of screenwriters, authors and other professional storytellers, there are other equally important elements that help to move a story along, and which help us to construct these narratives in a calculated, structured way.

  1. Beginning: The natural tendency of almost EVERYONE is to give an elaborate backstory and context before starting on the real meat of a story. This is a mistake. The story should really begin shortly before the action starts to take place, some brief background serving only to set the scene. This is especially true for when we are telling stories in a professional setting, often with limited time and attention spans. If we don’t follow this rule, we run the risk of muddling our message or losing our audience’s focus with too much background. So start when the action kicks off, which brings us to…
  2. The Inciting Incident: This is a term often used in screenwriting meaning the moment that the events of a story are set into motion. This can be as simple as receiving a phone call, or something as dramatic as a plane crash (though I hope that is not where your story begins). Whatever it might be, this is the moment when the problem our characters have to solve begins to emerge.
  3. Obstacles: Stories are really about conflict and struggle (and change, but more on that later). If stories weren’t about struggle or obstacles, they would be pretty boring, right? Think of your favorite book or movie. I bet the characters had to overcome some pretty extreme obstacles in the course of that narrative to arrive at where they ended up. The struggle of our characters is what compels us to identify with them, connect with their plight and make meaning for ourselves in our own lives. It is critically important that the characters in our stories do not just encounter a straight road to success.
  4. Turning Point: Not to be confused with the climax of a story, the turning point is really the moment past which nothing will ever be the same. It usually comes about three quarters of the way through a book or film. Our characters may have already struggled and overcome some incredible odds, but this is the moment when they can never go back.
  5. Climax: Following our turning point there is usually another set of challenges that we go through which eventually lead us to the place we were inevitably headed—the climax. This is when it all comes to a head. It is the confluence of all the things that have led us to this point. It is when the sun rises over the hill and Gandalf comes riding over the ridge with the Knights of Gondor (excuse me for The Lord of the Rings reference if you are unfamiliar). It is the moment of truth.
  6. The End: In the same way the beginning should come just before the inciting incident, so should the end come shortly after the climax. Do not leave a lot of time in between the two, but rather, make the end short, snappy and memorable. Use this opportunity to describe the whole new world in which our characters find themselves, and bring our audience to the moral of the story, which is to say, why your work is so important.
  7. Rising/Falling Actions: These are the areas in between critical junctures where the tension and drama builds, or falls, dependent on where we are in the story. This is the place where we either set the scene for our next obstacle, or describe how the world has changed after we overcome our last challenge.
  8. Change, Change, Change: I cannot overstate this enough. As I mentioned above, stories are ultimately about change. They are about how our worlds transform, and about how we get to states of understanding or being. If we end up exactly where we began, well then what was the point of our trials and tribulations? Our audience expects the payoff of something waiting on the other side of the narrative arc, so it helps to always think about how each moment of the story leads them to that end.

As an example, allow me to paraphrase a popular story that we likely all know—Cinderella. And for the sake of our global audience, I am using the American Disney version since that is most familiar to me.cinderella

  • We start out at the beginning with Cinderella as an indentured servant to her wicked stepmother and stepsisters (BEGINNING).
  • Until there is a knock at the door (INCITING INCIDENT).
  • It appears the Prince is having a ball to select his bride. But of course, Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters will not let her go. Without a means to get to the ball, Cinderella is stuck (OBSTACLE 1).
  • Until of course her fairy Godmother whips up a gown and a coach with all the trimmings, and Cinderella flies off to the ball. Once she is there she meets the Prince and they dance. It is at this point that nothing will ever be the same now that the Prince has met Cinderella and fallen in love (TURNING POINT).
  • However, the clock strikes 12 and Cinderella must race home, losing that glass slipper on the staircase. The Prince is left alone, and Cinderella’s life goes back to normal. That is until the Prince dispatches his men to find that girl. But when they arrive at Cinderella’s home she is locked away, almost missing her chance (OBSTACLE 2).
  • Until some wily mice steal the key and release Cinderella, allowing her to storm the room and slip her food into that glass slipper (CLIMAX).
  • Finally, she is reunited with Prince Charming and they live happily ever after, proving that true love conquers all (END).

While it may seem trite, the fairy tale does follow a simple structure that is easy to understand. I suspect your experiences are likely far more complicated. But by transforming your journey and your work into a dramatic, narrative arc, you can connect with audiences more deeply, make meaning for those who might never have had the chance, and turn your research into a true Cinderella story.

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.

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).

The Top 10 Qualities of Scientist (Communicator) Leaders

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Nancy Baron (COMPASS Science Outreach Director) shares the key traits that define leaders in science. What’s the top quality that most sets them apart from their peers? Their expert ability to communicate.

Over the past 12 years as a communication trainer for the Leopold Leadership Program, and as a coach for many scientists, I have observed an intrinsic link between communication and leadership.  As I wrote in a past Nature Comment:

It’s no coincidence that environmental scientists who lead the pack, both within academia and beyond, are good communicators. These scientists know how to articulate a vision, focus a debate and cut to the essence of an argument. They can make a point compelling, even to those who disagree. They talk about their science in ways that make people sit up, take notice, and care.

I have also witnessed that, as scientists work toward becoming more effective communicators, they increasingly move into realms of leadership. When I look back at the early days and the scientists I have worked with this is evident in their trajectories. In a rough video clip I produced of a Leopold gathering in 2001 called “True Confessions: Coming Out of the Ivory Tower,” the fellows reveal why they decided they needed to work on communicating their science. “True Confessions” now has the unforeseen impact of a “before” glimpse of many scientists who have increasingly risen to leadership.

When you stand up and speak out – to the media, or policymakers, or you write an opinion piece or blog post – it is like a drop of water hitting the surface. It sends out ripples with unexpected repercussions – often, good ones.  Doors may swing open, new opportunities may arise.  You will meet new people and make new connections. Yet there are also challenges. Being a leader also means learning how to deal with the criticisms that arise, and keeping on keeping on. One thing, however, is clear – putting yourself and your science out there is a form of practice, learning, and giving.  And, by giving in that way it will somehow come back to you… thus a spirit of good intent is important.

"Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects." Dalai Lama. Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” –Dalai Lama.
Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they are not necessarily flashy. There is no single way to be, no single destination. It’s really a process of exploration, experimentation and finding your own voice.

And while communication is a critical aspect of leadership, there are other qualities as well. Here are the 10 key attributes that I see in scientist leaders – scientists who are making their science matter:

1) They have a vision – and can articulate it.

2) They are passionate. But don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve.

3) They work hard at communication… even if they make it look deceptively easy.

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.

5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

6) They are resilient. And pick themselves up and keep on going when they fall.

7) They are self-examining and adaptive.

8) They seek solutions. And address the “so what” so people care.

9) They have a fun factor or some kind of charisma – but are not necessarily extroverted.

10) They are persistent. Patience eventually pays off.

While these ten things make a leader, not everyone will have all of these qualities. But most, in my experience, have many. Do you agree or disagree? And who, as a scientist communicator and leader, is currently inspiring you?

*This article was originally published on May 13, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.