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Synopsis: Science is a search for evidence, but science communication must be a search for meaning. General audiences will only care about science if it is presented in a meaningful context. One of the most effective ways to do this is through storytelling. Stories are integral to all cultures. Studies indicate that stories even help audiences to process and recall new information. Scientists sometimes worry that storytelling will conflate empirical evidence with fabrication. But when telling non-fiction stories, it is a process of recognizing the story elements already present in the subject material and distilling the most concise and compelling account for a target audience. In this paper, I review literature, offer examples, and draw from my experience as a scientist and a communication trainer to explore how storytelling makes science comprehensible and meaningful for general audiences.
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SYMPOSIUM
Making Science Meaningful for Broad Audiences through Stories
Sara J. ElShafie
1
Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
From the symposium “Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences” presented at the annual meeting of the
Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, January 3–7, 2018 at San Francisco, California.
1
E-mail: selshafie@berkeley.edu
Synopsis Science is a search for evidence, but science communication must be a search for meaning. General audiences
will only care about science if it is presented in a meaningful context. One of the most effective ways to do this is
through storytelling. Stories are integral to all cultures. Studies indicate that stories even help audiences to process and
recall new information. Scientists sometimes worry that storytelling will conflate empirical evidence with fabrication. But
when telling non-fiction stories, it is a process of recognizing the story elements already present in the subject material
and distilling the most concise and compelling account for a target audience. In this paper, I review literature, offer
examples, and draw from my experience as a scientist and a communication trainer to explore how storytelling makes
science comprehensible and meaningful for general audiences.
Allow me to begin this paper with a story ...
When I began studying paleontology as an under-
graduate, I felt like a black sheep in the family. My
relatives all had occupations that dealt with everyday
problems, like feeding and healing people. Every time a
relative asked me, “So what is your research about?,” I
got the same feeling of dread. I would try to explain
my work (“I study fossil lizards that were abundant in
the US Western Interior during the Paleogene!”), and
they would nod politely and change the subject.
Despite my passion for the field, I was inadvertently
making it impossible for others to share my enthusi-
asm. It bothered me that I did not know how to con-
vey the importance of my work to my own family.
I was now a year into my PhD program. As I
began preparing for my qualifying examination, I
decided that I needed to address my communication
problem before I started my dissertation. But where
to start? At family gatherings, my relatives swapped
stories. I realized that I had learned a lot about their
work through those stories. I needed to learn how to
tell stories about my work that would appeal to them
as well. If I could do that with my relatives, I could
probably do that with anyone.
It just so happened that some masters of storytell-
ing were located close to my university campus.
I contacted Pixar Animation Studios to see if anyone
there would be interested in coming to chat with a
group of graduate students in my department. To
my complete shock, I actually got a response. We
started planning a seminar. I had loved Pixar movies
since I was a kid, and now we were going to learn
about storytelling from my childhood heroes! The
timing was also perfect because I had just been in-
vited to give a talk at a public paleontology festival
called PaleoFest (Burpee Museum of Natural History
2016). I already had a talk prepared from my
Master’s thesis defense, but I was hoping to pick
up a few tips to help tailor it for a public audience.
In our campus seminar, an artist from Pixar gave
an entertaining and perceptive overview of basic sto-
rytelling tools that they use at the studio. I realized
that I was already familiar with many of these terms
and concepts. But I was surprised to realize that I
had never thought about them in the context of
communicating science. It had not occurred to me
that telling a story with a protagonist and a plot
could be just as useful in science as in fiction. I
was also reminded by this artist that the most im-
portant rule in storytelling is to make your audience
care. Even in stories about toys or monsters or
superheroes, the story has to be emotionally
Advance Access publication July 30, 2018
ßThe Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
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Integrative and Comparative Biology
Integrative and Comparative Biology, volume 58, number 6, pp. 1213–1223
doi:10.1093/icb/icy103 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
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compelling (Pixar Animation Studios 2017).
Otherwise, it won’t mean anything to the audience.
Pixar’s filmmakers had a lot more in common with
scientists than I thought. Whether empirical evidence
or whimsical fantasy, the goal is to connect with the
audience.
When I got home that night, I was exhilarated.
Storytelling was clearly the best starting point to fig-
ure out how to connect with my family, and with the
public! But as I began modifying my thesis slides for
PaleoFest, I started to panic. I realized that I would
have to change the entire talk. My slides focused too
much on the specifics of my research and offered
little meaning for a broad audience (“Body size
and species richness change in Glyptosaurinae
through climatic transitions of the North American
Cenozoic” –that’ll really get the kids inspired!). What
might a bunch of families and fossil enthusiasts ac-
tually care about (beyond just “fossils are cool”)?
How could I tie that to my particular research? I
sat down and began to brainstorm.
Introduction: making science meaningful
The dilemma in the story above may sound familiar.
Perhaps you too have struggled to explain your work
to your family. I’m willing to bet that you have come
across scientific reports or presentations that offered
no clear relevance for a general audience. Scientists
are trained to be objective when conducting research.
A scientist’s personal perspective on his or her work
blurs that objectivity, and thus technical scientific
writing tends to be indifferent to the actual experi-
ence of doing science (Olson 2009,2015;Baron
2010;Schimel 2012;Olson et al. 2013;Green et al.
2018;Padian 2018). Communication, in contrast, is
about building understanding between different per-
spectives. To do this, we cannot assume that objec-
tivity will be appealing (Fiske and Dupree 2014)or
that scientific evidence will speak for itself (Dean
2009;Baron 2010;Schimel 2012;Fischhoff et al.
2013,2014;Luna 2013;National Academy of
Sciences 2014,2017a,2018). Broad audiences under-
stand science when we make it meaningful to them
(Dean 2009;Olson 2009,2015;Baron 2010;Olson
et al. 2013;Alda 2017;Rather 2017).
One of the best ways to make an idea meaningful
is through storytelling (Avraamidou and Osborne
2009;Olson 2009,2015;Olson et al. 2013;
Hadzigeorgiou 2016;Alda 2017;Rather 2017;
Mazurkewich 2018;Padian 2018). Stories have always
been integral to human culture (Campbell 1949;
Vogler 2007;Gottschall 2012;Harari 2015;Padian
2018), and are deeply rooted in our cognitive
processing (Bruner 1986;Falk and Dierking 2000;
Kahneman 2011;Cron 2012;Sanford and Emmott
2012). Stories put new information into a familiar
context, which both focuses attention (Schank and
Abelson 1995;Hasson et al. 2008;Stephens et al.
2010) and elicits emotion (Barraza et al. 2015;Zak
2015). Stories help an audience to comprehend, recall,
and care about the content presented (Bower and
Clark 1969;Graesser et al. 2002). Storytelling can
therefore help scientists to engage with broad audien-
ces and make even the most abstruse scientific con-
cepts accessible (Olson et al. 2013;Olson 2015).
Story, narrative, and storytelling
The difference between “story” and “narrative”
depends on whom you ask (Avraamidou and
Osborne 2009). Dictionary definitions often give re-
ciprocal explanations of the terms—e.g., narrative:
“something that is narrated; story, account”
(Merriam Webster 2015), versus story: “an oral or
written narrative account of events” (Oxford English
Dictionary 2017). Sanford and Emmott (2012) offer
a helpful review of literature on what constitutes a
“narrative” versus a “story.” They find that, at min-
imum, there is some consensus that a “narrative” is a
series of chronological, causal events. A “story,”
according to their review, must include a setting (a
main character, location, and time), a plot (in which
the main character pursues a goal), and a resolution
(outcome of that pursuit). A “narrative” tells a
“story” when something unusual happens that sets
the events of a plot in motion (Hu¨hn et al. 2009;
Sanford and Emmott 2012;Olson 2015). For exten-
sive discussion of these terms, see especially Bruner
(1986), Simmons (2001), Norris et al. (2005),
Avraamidou and Osborne (2009), McKee (2010),
Gottschall (2012), Olson et al. (2013), Olson
(2015), and the references cited under the “Story
structure” section.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will consider
a “narrative” to be a sequence of causative events. A
narrative becomes part of a “story” when one of
those events is an inciting incident that sets a plot
in motion. A “story,” which I treat here as the more
encompassing term, follows a protagonist on a jour-
ney to overcome an obstacle with something of con-
sequence at stake. This journey will have a
meaningful broad theme for the protagonist and/or
the audience. I will discuss these terms in detail later
in this paper.
A good story cannot be devised. It has to be distilled.
—Raymond Chandler, quoted by Schimel (2012)
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This is true of fiction and especially of nonfiction
storytelling. Some worry that science storytelling will
misconstrue empirical evidence (e.g., Katz 2013), but
the purpose of nonfiction storytelling is to offer a
clear and compelling account of true events
(Simmons 2001;Vogler 2007;Baron 2010;Sachs
2012;Schimel 2012;Luna 2013;Olson et al. 2013;
Olson 2015), not to alter facts. Science communica-
tion, like storytelling, is a process of distilling the
most salient information from a complex body of
work (Dean 2009;Baron 2010;Schimel 2012;Luna
2013;COMPASS 2017). A science storyteller does
not change the truth in the evidence; rather, she or
he distills the story that the evidence tells. The ap-
propriate information to include depends on the au-
dience, the context of the communication, and the
goals for that interaction (Avraamidou and Osborne
2009;Dean 2009;Nisbet and Scheufele 2009;Olson
2009,2015;Baron 2010;Schimel 2012;Fischhoff
et al. 2013,2014;Olson et al. 2013;National
Academy of Sciences 2018). Every scientist does
this when writing a manuscript or preparing a pre-
sentation. A scientist who understands the mechanics
of story will be more effective at it (Avraamidou and
Osborne 2009;Olson 2015;Green et al. 2018;Padian
2018).
Beyond distilling information, a compelling story
has enough emotional significance to be meaningful
to the audience (Simmons 2001;Vogler 2007;McKee
2010;Sachs 2012). Emotional significance is also
critical for effective science communication—in this
context, it is often called the “So What?” factor
(COMPASS 2017), “What’s the Big Idea?,” or some-
thing similar. Storytelling can therefore help scien-
tists to consider the potential emotional impact of
their work in addition to the scientific impact
(Avraamidou and Osborne 2009;Olson 2009,2015;
Olson et al. 2013;Alda 2017;Green et al. 2018;
Padian 2018).
How do we know that storytelling
improves communication?
Bruner (1985) claimed that “there are two irreduc-
ible modes of cognitive functioning” (p. 97).
“Paradigmatic mode” is for rational thinking—logic
and problem solving, regardless of context. The
other, “narrative mode,” seeks meaningful explica-
tions that are sensitive to context. Years later, after
extensive research, Kahneman (2011) used a
similar dichotomy to describe human cognition.
He characterized “System 1” as our default mode
of mental processing, constantly creating stories out
of new information. “System 2,” akin to Bruner’s
“paradigmatic mode,” deals with complex problem
solving and can only work in short bursts. Scientists
would thus do well to speak to an audience’s System
1 by telling a story, rather than exhausting System 2
with technicalities.
Recent studies indicate that people are neurologi-
cally prone to focus on content with story structure.
In one experiment, Hasson et al. (2008) monitored
the brain activity of four groups of volunteers while
showing each group a different type of footage. The
footage ranged in story intensity from an Alfred
Hitchcock film (strong story, strong suspense) to
footage taken in a nearby park (no story, no sus-
pense). The people watching the Hitchcock film
had the highest similarity in brain activity relative
to each other; the people watching park footage
had no similarity at all. This result may not seem
surprising, but the implications are profound. By
using story structure, especially with high suspense,
a storyteller can essentially sync the brainwaves of
audience members. Without a story, an audience
may as well be watching pigeons.
This phenomenon of brain waves syncing while
processing stories is called neural coupling. In a fol-
low up study (Stephens et al. 2010), a speaker told a
listener a story while scientists monitored the neural
activity of both subjects. The brain activity of the
listener mirrored that of the speaker. When that lis-
tener then recounted the same story to another lis-
tener, their respective brain activity still reflected that
of the original storyteller. This study indicates that
stories can align mental processing and memory in
audiences. According to these conclusions, when you
read my story in the prologue of this article, your
brain activity would have resembled mine when I
wrote the story. Likewise, if you retold that story
to someone else, their brain activity would reflect
yours.
Other research shows that stories not only facili-
tate information processing and recollection; they
also elicit a hormonal response. In one study,
Barraza et al. (2015) showed participants a short
video about a father whose son is dying from cancer.
In the video, the father describes his struggle to set
aside his grief and make the most of his remaining
time with his son. Barraza et al. (2015) found that
people who watched this video had elevated blood
levels of cortisol, which focuses attention, and oxy-
tocin, which is associated with feelings of empathy
(see Zak et al. 2004,2007). These participants also
had activated areas of the brain that are rich in oxy-
tocin receptors. Barraza et al. (2015) found that they
could even predict with 80% accuracy which partic-
ipants would donate money to a children’s cancer
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charity based on the levels of oxytocin in their blood
after viewing the short film (Barraza et al. 2015;Zak
2015). By comparison, a control group that watched
a different video of the same father and son at a zoo,
without the dramatic storyline, showed no hormonal
or neurological response.
Stories clearly have a neurological and even phys-
iological effect on us. This may explain why story-
telling is ubiquitous in all cultures (Campbell 1949;
Gottschall 2012) and used in most media platforms
(Dean 2009;Baron 2010;Sachs 2012). Given this,
and the fact that most people get their scientific in-
formation from mass media once they are out of
school (National Science Board 2012), the question
is not whether we should be conveying science
through stories, but how best to do it (Dahlstrom
2014;Martinez-Conde and Macknik 2017).
Story structure
Story structure is remarkably consistent across stories
from many cultures through history (Campbell
1949). Stories often begin with an exposition to set
the scene, present a conflict that launches the rising
action, and resolve the conflict in the climax and
falling action (Figs. 1 and 2). German novelist and
playwright Gustav Freytag first described this
“dramatic arc” in 1863 based on an analysis of
Aristotle’s Poetics (ca. 335 BCE; see the 1961
English translation) and Shakespearean dramas
(Freytag 1900). Propp (1925) found that many folk-
tales have a common sequence in which a main
character sets out on a quest and undergoes a series
of tests (see Padian [2018] in this volume for further
discussion). Campbell (1949) studied myths and sto-
ries from all over the world going back centuries and
also found that many stories follow a common arc
with similar elements. In this model, commonly
known as “The Hero’s Journey,” a protagonist sets
out to solve a problem, undergoes a series of trials,
and emerges with new knowledge about the world
and herself (Fig. 2). This structure is the basis of
almost every story ever produced for mass audiences,
from Dante’s Inferno (1320; see the 2002 English
translation [Alighieri 2002]) to Star Wars (Lucas
1977;Vogler 2007). Therefore, following this struc-
ture, even loosely, can put science into a familiar
context for many audiences (Olson 2015).
Scientific manuscripts and presentations com-
monly follow a structure that actually reflects a dra-
matic arc, in a sense. A typical manuscript starts
with an Introduction (Exposition), followed by
Methods (Rising Action), Results (Climax),
Analysis (Falling Action), and ends with Discussion
and Conclusions (Denouement or Resolution; Fig. 1;
see Schimel 2012;Luna 2013;Olson 2015). Note that
this “IMRAD” format does not follow the actual se-
quence in which the events of the study took place
(see Padian [2018] in this volume for further discus-
sion). The resemblance of the IMRAD format to a
dramatic arc may suffice as a narrative for many
scientific audiences.
Although most audiences will recognize the struc-
ture of a dramatic arc, it is often necessary to start
with the “So What?” aspect of the story to hook an
audience’s attention (Schimel 2012;Luna 2013;
Fig. 1 Freytag’s “pyramid,” also known as the “dramatic arc,”
showing a five-part story structure with rising and falling tension
over time. Based on Freytag (1900).
Fig. 2 “The Hero’s Journey” story model. The protagonist, or
hero, starts in a familiar context (for both him/her and the au-
dience) and receives a “Call to Adventure” that initiates a jour-
ney into a new context. The protagonist undergoes a
transformation and returns to the familiar context with a new
perspective. Based on Campbell (1949). See also Vogler (2007)
and Olson (2015) for extensive discussion of The Hero’s Journey
in the contexts of film and science communication, respectively.
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COMPASS 2017). Journalists typically start a story
with the main point (the “lede”), then provide the
most important details, and offer more background
information toward the end of the piece (Dean 2009;
Baron 2010). This approach also works well in sit-
uations that require you to hook the audience im-
mediately, such as research proposals or short-span
contexts (e.g., elevator pitches, conversations, and
interactions with guests at exhibits and festivals;
Baron 2010;Schimel 2012). You can also start with
a short, concise narrative that gets right to the point
and captures interest before elaborating with a longer
story (see Olson et al. [2013] and Olson [2015] for
extensive discussion of the “And–But–Therefore”
format).
Essential elements of story
The ingredients considered most essential to story-
telling vary slightly depending on the author (e.g.,
see Forbes 1999;Vogler 2007;Avraamidou and
Osborne 2009;McKee 2010;Schimel 2012;Olson
et al. 2013 for various treatments). For the purpose
of engaging broad audiences with science, I have
found these five elements useful: protagonist, inciting
incident, obstacle, stakes, and broad theme. If one of
these items is poorly developed, the story often falls
flat or falls apart.
Protagonist
Most stories follow a single main character, or pro-
tagonist. Clarifying the protagonist in a story, and
the objectives that motivate the protagonist, can help
the audience relate to him and follow the dynamics
of the story (Olson 2015). It will not always be es-
sential to name the protagonist explicitly: if the story
remains centered on that character, the protagonist
should be apparent to the audience.
Ideally, the protagonist must be both appealing
and flawed (Vogler 2007;McKee 2010;Olson et al.
2013;Olson 2015). The protagonist needs to be like-
able enough for the audience to want to hear the
story. Storytellers often make their protagonists ad-
ept, resourceful, intelligent, funny, or coming from
humble origins. These likeable qualities are balanced
with empathetic flaws, such as stubbornness, over-
thinking, overreacting, fear of attachment, indiffer-
ence, or hubris (see Dorie Barton’s commentary in
Olson et al. 2013). A protagonist’s flaw may even
jeopardize his objective without him realizing it
(McKee 2010). Forgivable flaws allow the audience
to empathize with the protagonist and make the
story their own.
A balance of admirable traits and forgivable flaws
evokes empathy with the protagonist. An audience
will be more invested in the fate of that protagonist
as a result (McKee 2010;Olson et al. 2013;Olson
2015). If the protagonist is a scientist, for example,
was she overconfident in her assumptions, or un-
aware of her own biases? Did this lead to a mistake
or a setback in the investigation? It is possible to
humanize scientists while emphasizing that science
is an iterative process of reducing uncertainty (see
https://undsci.berkeley.edu/ for more details).
It can also be useful to discuss flaws in nonhuman
characters. For instance, an organism, molecule, or
system may have a limitation for which it must some-
how (unconsciously) compensate in order to be suc-
cessful. Maybe it has a negative effect on its
community, environment, or planet if left unchecked.
In a story about nonhuman characters, the humans
are participating in the story through the narration
and the audience’s reaction. The protagonist might be
a migrating shark, for example, but it is the narrator
and the audience who will react emotionally to the
shark’s story and learn something from it. The goal is
not to ascribe intent to a nonhuman character in an
inappropriate sense, but rather, to allow an audience
member to find meaningful parallels between his own
experience and that of the nonhuman character. For
example, rather than saying, “the shark wanted to
explore the ocean,” the narrator could say, “the shark
needed to find food to survive.” The former might
work for a children’s storybook, but in order to focus
on empirical evidence, it is often best to avoid an-
thropomorphizing a nonhuman subject and instead
use comparisons or analogies to make the subject
accessible.
Obstacle
Every character needs an obstacle that stands in the
way of her objective. Without an obstacle, the
character does not change, and there is no story
(Vogler 2007;McKee 2010;Olson 2015). Fortunately
for science storytellers, obstacles are part of science.
Every scientific investigation confronts an obstacle,
whether it is an unsolved problem or a logistical
complication.
Obstacles can arise from other characters, from
external forces, or from the self (Campbell 1949;
Vogler 2007;McKee 2010;Olson et al. 2013;Olson
2015). In most but not all stories, the protagonist
must deal with an internal obstacle before she can
overcome an external obstacle (Vogler 2007;McKee
2010).
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Stakes
An obstacle only moves a story forward if it puts
something at risk. What are the consequences if the
protagonist fails to overcome that obstacle? The more
the protagonist has to lose, the more compelling the
story (McKee 2010). The stakes should increase as the
story unfolds (Vogler 2007;Olson 2015). Stakes add
weight to the protagonist’s actions and decisions, and
get the audience invested in the story’s outcome.
This doesn’t mean that imminent disaster has to
permeate every story. Stakes can be compelling even
without a fatal threat. One failed experiment may
not be a major setback in a scientist’s career, but
what if he is working against a deadline? Against
his own search for purpose? Several obstacles can
even be in play at once.
Inciting incident
This is the event that catalyzes the story. Also known
as the “Challenge,” “Call to Action,” or “Call to
Adventure” (Campbell 1949;Vogler 2007;Schimel
2012;Olson 2015), something must happen that
changes the protagonist’s situation and presents a
new opportunity or threat to her objective (McKee
2010). From this point on, the protagonist is in unfa-
miliar territory—figuratively and/or literally—and the
rest of the story is the protagonist’s journey to return
to her realm of familiarity (Fig. 2;seeCampbell 1949;
Vogler 2007;McKee 2010;Olson 2015).
Whether it is a story of a scientist on a quest for
discovery, an organism on a “quest” for survival, or
a natural system on a “quest” for equilibrium, an
inciting incident signals to the audience that the
story has begun. This both focuses their attention
and promises a payoff at the end of the story
(Olson 2015). The rest of the story then unfolds
through a series of actions taken by the protagonist,
and the outcomes of those actions (Campbell 1949;
Vogler 2007;McKee 2010).
Broad theme
The broad theme of the story is something universal
that goes beyond the specifics of the story. It is
something that every audience member can under-
stand. The broad theme might lie in the lessons the
protagonist learns from his journey in the story. If
the protagonist is nonhuman, the broad theme can
emerge from the subtext of the story. The migrating
shark itself may not have overcome an internal con-
flict, but what has the audience learned from follow-
ing its journey? That we shouldn’t judge based on
appearances? That we are all connected? Every
audience member will extract his or her own mean-
ing from the story, based on his or her own reactions
and prior experiences. But if the storytelling is effec-
tive, the entire audience will arrive at a similar point.
As an applied example of these story elements, I
now return to the story that I began in my prologue.
Initially, I had thought that the “So What?” of my
PaleoFest talk would be something like “science is a
process of discovery.” But as I developed the story, I
realized that the take-home message had to be
deeper than that. Everyone in the audience at
PaleoFest would already appreciate that science is
about discovery. I needed a message that would be
particularly relevant to the event, but also universal.
When I asked myself, “What compels me to study
fossils?,” I realized that the time travel simulation of
studying the fossil record had trained me to ap-
proach problems in the context of time and space.
I decided to frame my PaleoFest talk as a story about
how the perspective of time and space aided my
personal quest to preserve nature:
When I was a kid, I loved nature and animals. I
wanted to save the planet from climate change.
When I went to college, my interest in animals
led to a summer job working in a fossil lab. I
learned how to clean and prepare dinosaur bones,
and I started studying the science of bringing them
to life. It blew my mind! As I learned how to
reconstruct past worlds using fossils, I realized
that I was learning to address problems by think-
ing about changes over time and space. This also
applied to climate change.
I learned that climate change predictions today
depend on accurate records of climate change in
the past. We have a continuous record of past
temperatures (paleotemperatures) in the ocean,
but not on land. This is because fossil records
on land are patchy and often have large gaps.
Consequently, our record of paleotemperatures
on land is incomplete. We need more sources of
data to construct a more complete record of ter-
restrial paleotemperatures.
I found that other studies had reconstructed past
temperatures for a specific location and time based
on the body size of a single squamate (snake or
lizard; Head et al. 2009,2013, respectively). What
if we could do that for longer geologic time periods
using fossil squamates? I searched for a suitable
study group and came across Glyptosaurinae
(Squamata: Anguidae), a group of lizards that was
abundant in the Western Interior of North America
through the Paleogene (66–23 million years ago). I
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decided to investigate whether I could use the fossil
record of these lizards to reconstruct temperatures
through the Paleogene. I would use maximum glyp-
tosaurine body length in a mass-specific metabolic
equation to estimate the minimum mean annual
paleotemperature necessary to sustain that body
size (ElShafie 2014;ElShafieandHead,inreview).
There was only one problem: the known glypto-
saurine record did not include any complete fos-
sils. How was I going to measure body length
without whole skeletons? Fortunately, I found
that the anatomical proportions of fossil glypto-
saurines are consistent with their living relatives. I
was therefore able to build a regression model
from measurements of living lizards and estimate
glyptosaurine body length based on head length. I
generated a paleotemperature curve for the
Western Interior of North America through the
Paleogene based on glyptosaurine body length.
To my surprise, I found that the lizard-based tem-
peratures were very consistent with other fossil
proxies! These results suggest that fossil squamates
can indeed be a useful proxy for reconstructing
past temperatures over time and space.
I was inspired by the results of this study to keep
investigating past climate change events through the
vertebrate fossil record. For my PhD, I am continu-
ing to study the reptile fossil record of North
America through the Paleogene, now with a focus
on how climate change affects reptile communities
over time and space. Paleontology trains you to think
about how things are connected to a larger system,
and how that system changes over time—a very use-
ful skill. Whether you want to be a paleontologist, a
farmer, a doctor, or just an informed citizen, study-
ing paleontology can help prepare you for life!
The talk was a hit at PaleoFest. Kids, students,
parents, and colleagues thanked me for an engaging
story. Most important to me, however, was the re-
action of my relatives, some of whom had come to
hear my talk. They clearly understood, for the first
time in my eight years of fossil research, why I chose
this field. And, to be honest, so did I.
This story demonstrates two types of science sto-
ries: (1) stories about scientists as people, as in the
personal account that bookends the story; and (2)
stories about how science is conducted, as in the ac-
count from the PaleoFest talk nested within the per-
sonal story. Both of these stories have a dramatic arc,
but the focus differs. See Fig. 3 for an example of a
dramatic arc for a science story, as in the PaleoFest
talk (see also Green et al. [2018] for variations on a
dramatic arc that can apply to science stories). Note
that while the broad theme of the PaleoFest talk was
“Thinking about questions in time and space can help
you solve problems,” the broad theme of the personal
story would be something like “Connecting with
others connects you with yourself.
Addressing common concerns
Will other scientists not take me seriously if I use
storytelling to engage broad audiences?
I have heard this concern many times due to a phe-
nomenon known as “The Sagan Effect.” This refers
to the widely held belief that renowned science sto-
ryteller Carl Sagan was denied membership in the
National Academy of Sciences because of his focus
on popularizing science (Martinez-Conde 2016; but
see Loverd et al. [2018] in this volume for evidence
of changing views on this matter at NAS).
Unfortunately, that sort of attitude still exists in ac-
ademia. Too often, I hear colleagues complain that
they were undermined for explaining science in an
accessible way to a museum-goer, or criticized for
spending any time at all on public outreach.
Many people would argue today that science com-
munication is a critical skill for any scientist (e.g.,
Lubchenco 1998;Dean 2009;Baron 2010;Schimel
2012;Luna 2013;Olson et al. 2013;Olson 2015;
Illingworth 2017;Mazurkewich 2018) and that
efforts to engage the public with science are well
worth the time (e.g., Olson 2009;Kuehne et al.
2014;Alda 2017;Rather 2017;Green et al. 2018).
The National Science Foundation requires a substan-
tial statement of “Broader Impacts” on every major
Fig. 3 An example of a dramatic arc for a story about a scientific
study. The story in the “PaleoFest” talk follows this progression.
Note that in this figure, the “pyramid” of rising action and falling
action seen in Fig. 1 has been broken into multiple peaks of
increasing tension. A protagonist might take multiple actions and
face multiple obstacles in the course of a story. Based on Freytag
(1900).
Making science meaningful through stories 1219
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grant proposal (National Science Foundation 2002).
The National Academy of Sciences itself now holds a
regular colloquium on “The Science of Science
Communication” and has published several volumes
of research on the subject (Fischhoff et al. 2013,
2014;National Academy of Sciences 2014,2017a,
2017b,2018). Some studies have even found that
scientists who engage in public outreach are equally
if not more academically productive than average
(Jensen et al. 2008;Russo 2010).
If I force empirical evidence into a story formula,
won’t the story be biased?
If the outcome of a story is decided first, and evi-
dence is then selected to support that outcome, then
yes, that is a biased account (Schimel 2012). But in
science communication, the goal is to identify story
elements that are already present in a study, and to
use those elements to distill an accurate and com-
pelling story of a study without introducing bias or
fabrication. Story models such as “The Hero’s
Journey” (Fig. 2) offer a form, not a formula
(Vogler 2007;McKee 2010). Such models are useful
for understanding aspects of stories that are univer-
sally recognizable to general audiences.
A scientific study is never communicated exactly
the way it happened. The IMRAD template often
used to write manuscripts takes things out of context
(Padian 2018). Scientists never have enough time or
space to include all the details when presenting their
work. They must select the most salient information,
which will depend on the audience, the platform,
and the main points they want to emphasize
(Avraamidou and Osborne 2009;Dean 2009;Nisbet
and Scheufele 2009;Olson 2009,2015;Baron 2010;
Schimel 2012;Fischhoff et al. 2013,2014;Olson et al.
2013;National Academy of Sciences 2018).
How can I deal with existing stories about science
that conflict with the one I want to share?
Any audience will likely have some preconceptions
about a topic from existing stories, especially if the
topic is politically charged or ethically sensitive. For
example, someone planning to tell a story that
reveals the potential benefits of CRISPR Cas-9 gene
editing technology (see Doudna and Charpentier
2014;Sternberg et al. 2014;Doudna and Sternberg
2017) should familiarize themselves with the plots of
films depicting genetically enhanced humans (e.g.,
Blade Runner,Scott 1982) and animals (e.g.,
Rampage,Peyton 2018), as well as the anti-GMO
narrative that the organic food industry uses in its
marketing (Clancy and Clancy 2016). Such narratives
can be an opportunity to launch constructive and
balanced discussions. In order to engage people
with science, it is important to be candid about
what science is, in its virtues and its limitations.
What if the experiment didn’t work, or the results
are inconclusive? How is that a story?
It is okay if the protagonist does not overcome the
obstacle by the end of the story. This may seem
unsatisfying to the storyteller, but it can make the
story more gripping for the audience. They will em-
pathize even more with a protagonist who does not
get exactly what she wants. In such a case, the rev-
elation might be that the real goal of the protagonist
was something she did not see before (McKee 2010).
For example, Jennifer Hofmeister studied movement
and abundance patterns in the California Two Spot
Octopus for her dissertation research (Hofmeister
2015). After years of dedicated fieldwork and analy-
ses, Hofmeister’s results were inconclusive. She
found that it was not possible to explain patterns
of abundance in this species through her study.
However, her results revealed that the question was
more complex than previously assessed: the octopus
was highly mobile, which contradicted earlier stud-
ies. Hofmeister was inspired to continue her research
on octopuses, and her hard work led to a job as an
environmental scientist.
Stories are not just about solving problems: they
are about discovery. In scientific pursuits, even null
or negative results reveal something. A story does
not necessarily have to end with a solution. It might
end with a piece of the solution and more questions
than answers. That’s how science works. Insights can
be gained from the journey. Whether the problem is
solved or not, those revelations are what allow the
audience to find meaning in the story.
Moving forward
Storytelling is an iterative process. When developing
a science story, it can be helpful to share a draft with
people who represent the target audience and ask
them what they got out of the story. Were the pro-
tagonist, obstacle, and stakes clear to them? What
was the broad theme? The test audience might pick
up on an emerging theme not yet considered.
Developing storytelling skills is a lifelong pursuit
(Vogler 2007;Olson 2015). The good news is that it
does not take long to learn the basics of story devel-
opment. Using those basics in science communica-
tion makes a huge difference. Reading the papers in
this volume is an excellent start. The references in
this paper, as well as those listed in the other articles
1220 S. J. ElShafie
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in this volume, offer further reading. For a helpful
and entertaining overview of storytelling basics,
“Pixar in a Box, Season 3: The Art of Storytelling”
(Pixar Animation Studios (2017) is an open-access
resource developed by Pixar with Khan Academy.
Storytelling is not just a skillset; it’s a mindset that
one can use and develop throughout a career.
Acknowledgments
I especially wish to thank K. Padian for his mentor-
ship and guidance in this research. For helpful dis-
cussions, I thank L. White, J. Bean, C. Marshall, P.
Holroyd, S. Sumida, R. Olson, J. Lovell, D. McCoy,
A. Madison, J.-P. Vine, G. Dykstra, T. DeRose, E.
Klaidman, K.C. Roeyer, M. Nolte, S. Pilcher, S.
Christen, D. Campbell, R. Sullivan, P. Lin, A.
Rutland, M. Coleman, C. Good, W. Trezevant, R.
Dutra, K. Johnson, H. Sues, S. Sampson, C. Liu, F.
Mundi, H. Kerby, R. Stockley, R. Holmes, E. Neeley,
S. Ul-Hasan, and J. Hofmeister. Thank you to the
UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) community
for constructive feedback on this work. Special
thanks to J. Schimel, J. Weddle, and three anony-
mous reviewers for their thoughtful and thorough
comments on this manuscript. I thank the Society
for Integrative and Comparative Biology for the op-
portunity to organize this symposium and publish
this manuscript; my co-organizers, S. Sumida and
B. Lutton; and all of my fellow symposium present-
ers for being part of this initiative.
Funding
I thank the Sakana Foundation, the Uplands
Foundation, and the UCMP for supporting this
work. I also thank Science Sandbox, an initiative of
the Simons Foundation; the Society for Integrative
and Comparative Biology (SICB); the Walt Disney
Family Museum; Science World at TELUS World
of Science; Coalition for the Public Understanding
of Science; Spacetime Labs; and an anonymous do-
nor for sponsoring the “Science Through Narrative”
symposium at the 2018 SICB Meeting, which pro-
vided the opportunity to present this work and pub-
lish this paper.
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... Indeed, narrative has recently attracted support in the domain of science communication (e.g. Dahlstrom, 2014;ElShafie, 2018). While I am sympathetic to these existing proposals, they remain limited in two interconnected ways. ...
... And it usually has a familiar arc: after setting the stage, the typical story is catalysed by a problem or obstacle, which puts something at risk, and which the protagonist(s) must confront -leading, usually, to a resolution (for discussion of these 'core' features of narratives, see, e.g. ElShafie, 2018ElShafie, : 1217ElShafie, -1219Fraser, 2021: 4027;Mandler and Johnson, 1977: 114-115). ...
... Indeed, it is widely held that narrative constitutes a powerful tool for capturing attention and enlisting the emotions (see, e.g. ElShafie, 2018ElShafie, : 1214ElShafie, -1215Fraser, 2021: 4035-4037;Prescott-Couch, manuscript). ...
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... A typical research project is structured as a chronological sequence of concept/hypothesis development, planning, experiment, data analysis and data interpretation. However, many research reports already use narrative elements in the IMRAD format to present the knowledge: introduction (exposition), methods (rising action), results (climax), analysis (falling action) and discussion (resolution) (ElShafie, 2018). In an animation, we can make use of a narrative. ...
... Storytelling can attract the audience's attention, make them care and leave a lasting impression by including stakes and allowing the audience to relate to the story (Ma et al., 2012;Lepito, 2018). This makes the science more meaningful to them without compromising on scientific accuracy, objectivity and therefore credibility (ElShafie, 2018). Due to the persuasive nature of narratives, science animators need to include ethical considerations related to the underlying communication objective (persuasion or comprehension), the level of accuracy (external realism, representativeness) or the use of narrative at all, especially when addressing non-expert audiences (Dahlstrom, 2014). ...
... Any story can be characterised by the three act structure that goes back to Aristotle's Poetics (see the english translation, (Aristotle, 1996)) and Figure 1B) and includes a setting (establishment of environment and characters; act 1), a plot with rising narrative tension (act 2, the protagonist on a pursuit) and a resolution (act 3), see also ElShafie (2018). The structure of the story however does not have to be linear. ...
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Molecular animations play an increasing role in scientific visualisation and science communication. They engage viewers through non-fictional, documentary type storytelling and aim at advancing the audience. Every scene of a molecular animation is to be designed to secure clarity. To achieve this, knowledge on design principles from various design fields is essential. The relevant principles help to draw attention, guide the eye, establish relationships, convey dynamics and/or trigger a reaction. The tools of general graphic design are used to compose a signature frame, those of cinematic storytelling and user interface design to choreograph the relative movement of characters and cameras. Clarity in a scientific visualisation is reached by simplification and abstraction where the choice of the adequate representation is of great importance. A large set of illustration styles is available to chose the appropriate detail level but they are constrained by the availability of experimental data. For a high-quality molecular animation, data from different sources can be integrated, even filling the structural gaps to show a complete picture of the native biological situation. For maintaining scientific authenticity it is good practice to mark use of artistic licence which ensures transparency and accountability. The design of motion requires knowledge from molecule kinetics and kinematics. With biological macromolecules, four types of motion are most relevant: thermal motion, small and large conformational changes and Brownian motion. The principles of dynamic realism should be respected as well as the circumstances given in the crowded cellular environment. Ultimately, consistent complexity is proposed as overarching principle for the production of molecular animations and should be achieved between communication objective and abstraction/simplification, audience expertise and scientific complexity, experiment and representation, characters and environment as well as structure and motion representation.
... To do so 65 there is a need to go beyond facts to creating emotional connections by telling stories (Joubert et al., 2019), which can be seen as facts wrapped in emotions (Olson, 2009). Stories provide a powerful way to engage people with science and help them understand it (Dahstrom, 2014;ElShafie, 2018). Within this context, imagery can be combined with the stripes to add meaning, emotion and help tell a story. ...
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Globally there has also been a stark decline in biodiversity since 1970 yet climate change receives far greater attention. The ‘warming stripes’ have shown the power of very simple graphical visualisations of data for communicating with broad audiences. The ‘nature stripes’ show how biodiversity data can also be presented in a similar way to positive effect.
... Narrative visualization combines storytelling techniques with interactive graphics to communicate scientific results to a general audience [4]. The data should be presented in a traceable progression that is both memorable and straightforward [5,6] to prevent misinforming. Ynnerman et al. [7] coined the term exploranation for merging exploratory visualizations that are traditionally made for experts with explanatory visualization techniques. ...
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