Use the proven power of stories to explain science and data

Use the proven power of stories to explain science and data
To effectively communicate science — or anything, really — you need to know two things: your audience and your goal. To make your findings stick, tell a story.

People love stories because our brains are wired to receive stories. Studies have shown that similar areas in our brains light up in listeners and storytellers. Storytelling and science are natural partners and research suggests that narratives can increase the comprehension and appreciation of scientific findings that are often shrouded in clutter. At the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, we empower scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and even other scientists.

Good storytelling is an art, but there is also a structure to it. Being a scientist and a data geek, I like to think about good storytelling as a left, or negative, -skewed parabola. A good story builds up slowly to a climax and then drops off quickly, as seen in this decidedly unscientific visual.


The build is often what’s lacking in science communications. As researchers, we either meticulously detail every methodological step or we skip right to the findings. There’s nothing about what prompted our journey of investigation, the struggles we overcame along the way, or the moment we realized we would (or wouldn’t) achieve our goal. These are the pieces that make stories human, comprehensible, and memorable.

All data has a story to tell. It is full of stories. You just have to know where to look and how to tell them. Storytelling to explain science and data follows the same tenets of effective communication:

  1. Be personal. Don’t forget to say I. Listeners want to know why you care about your research, what you struggled with, and what you achieved. Make a personal connection. Your audience will listen more if they care about you and your research.

  2. It’s all about your audience. Even if it seems like your data are the star of the show, storytelling isn’t about the data or you, the storyteller. It is about whether the other person gets it, otherwise you are just talking or writing at them.

  3. Be empathetic. We all suffer from the curse of knowledge. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to not know. Empathize with your audience and conceive how they relate to your work. Whether it’s your boss who is juggling a dozen competing requests or a colleague who doesn’t care about the methods and just wants a clear recommendation, put yourself in their shoes and focus on their needs.

  4. What’s the goal of your story? What do you want your audience to think, feel, or do when you leave? Are you trying to inspire and empower your team or convince a leader to fund your project? Pick the data that support your goal and help you tell your story. Know the goal of your audience because it may be different from yours. Address your audience’s goal first, otherwise they will be thinking about their interests and not fully listening to what you have to say.

  5. Remember that not everyone’s an expert. Can you explain why your data are important to an 11-year-old in an engaging way? Many newspapers actually aim for a 7th grade audience in terms of readability. One of our participants in the Flame Challenge entry (our science communication contest) told us “It’s ok to be funny, but not silly…we’re 11, not 7!”

I leave you with this challenge: the next time you have to communicate data of any kind, be personal and tell a story! Practice with someone who doesn’t know the content well (and it doesn’t have to be an 11-year old). Perhaps, with the help of stories, your data and research can have a greater impact at your organization.

Dr. Christine O’Connell is the Associate Director of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Watch her talk at the re:Work event here.