How we spin a scientific story

It’s a common metaphor among scientists that to report your data is to tell your audience a story. No one gets excited about finding the answer to a question they aren’t invested in, which only makes sense; to be excited about results, you have to know where they fit into the field of previous knowledge and what will happen next.  And narrative is a great way to convey all that, to make an audience interested in a problem

That’s why the first ten minutes of any academic presentation are devoted to making a case for why the question is interesting, worth the scientist’s time and the audience’s attention.  Call it setting the stage, beginning the story, catching the audience up to where the excitement begins. The research question makes the dramatic conflict; if a presentation is really good, then the hero is clever and thorough in their approach to answering the question, but not self-aggrandizing (such are the hazards of telling a story about yourself). Once the question is answered, in full or in part, the denouement must remind the audience why they’re supposed to care; how will we all live happily ever after, or else what are the prospects for a sequel? (Applications for funding, though in theory they have only the very beginning of the story, are especially glowing when they pitch the sequels).

As in fiction, in a good scientific story the hero is relatable; knowing only what they have been told, the audience can see why the approaches the researcher took are sensible, can imagine taking such approaches themselves. This is what makes it tricky for scientists to tell nonscientists about their research. You can always assume that a roomful of cell biologists will agree that cell cycle control is an interesting topic. A roomful of normal people will want to know the point.  That’s why the world is full of publications like Discover and Scientific American, which make it their business to communicate why the eggheads are so excited.

Popular science writing tends to slant toward the novel, the gross, and the health-related: topics that are intrinsically interesting. When it is bad, it is very, very bad (here’s a great sendup of the crappy pop-sci story).  But when it is good, it is splendid.

This blog will be about how scientists and writers communicate science: to one another and the public.  What’s compelling?  What isn’t?  And what genuinely cool answers are out there waiting to be shared?

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