Why Science Blogging Requires Story-Telling

Credit: Tom Murphy VII, Wiki.

Credit: Tom Murphy VII, Wiki.

Who would have thought that what you REALLY need in order to be an excellent science communicator is the ability to tell good stories?

This week, I invited Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR, to write a guest blog post for our community blog series "Blogging 2.0", advice on bringing your science blogging to the next level. Joe could have written about how to use social media effectively, or how to gain readership with catchy blog post titles. But the subject of his guest post is much more fundamental: storytelling.

Storytelling appears to be a critical aspect of science communication, from grant proposal, to journal publication, to news story, to popular science novel, to our favorite science blog post. One of the biggest themes that emerged from my own qualitative study of science communicators last summer was the idea that people relate to stories, and that the best science writing involves storytelling with tangible characters, drama, plot and metaphors.

"The sex life of the bdelloid rotifer is not on the minds of most people. So if I want to write a piece about that, I have to find a way to make it interesting to people other than microbiologists. How do I do that? I tell stories. I use familiar analogies or amusing anecdotes that I hope will entice people to listen to the entire piece." - Joe Palca

And science blog posts aren't the only pieces of science writing that require storytelling. A professor I respect once told me that the best way to ensure that your manuscript is chosen for publication by a top-tier journal is to make sure that the manuscript, tables and figures work together to tell a coherent story. Pieces of data unnecessary to tell that story may be downplayed, while the abstract and introduction, like any nut-graph, should introduce the problem, anticipate the future excitement - essentially set up the rest of the story. For better or for worse, even journal editors apparently aren't immune to the appeal of a good story. Good science + good storytelling = success.

Thoughts on this?

2 Responses to “Why Science Blogging Requires Story-Telling”

  1. Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

    Paige: I very much agree. I enjoy blogging so much because it gives the opportunity to tell stories, and break out of the rigid writing. I think, however, that our training (i.e, as we move through graduate school/post-doc etc) is more focused on getting all the research pieced done (data collection, analysis, etc) without *enough* attention to the bigger story we are trying to tell. Good post!

  2. stephenstrauss Reply | Permalink

    It is easy to agree with this since the mantra of all journalism professors everywhere is: Tell the story; tell the story; tell the story, While storytelling is clearly a way to get people to read or view something they aren't ordinarily interested in – think Palca's almost preternaturally obscure bdelloid rotifer – I would suggest that in the stream of information we call the Internet, storifying can actually get in the way of science communication. And that is because on the Net people often arrive at websites already very interested in something and often only want to know facts or information about that something. So to tell them a story is to prevent them from easily finding out what they want to learn about.
    These web visitors arrive with different expectations because effectively reference texts and journalistic efforts have gotten mashed up on the Net. And that means (I think) that people who “communicate science” – there are quotation marks here for a reason – have to be very conscious of whom their audience is and what they want, and as they write have to ask themselves something which people in a previous age never did: Is my story getting in the way of my facts?

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