Evoking Engagement and Empathy in Science Stories
Charles Darwin spent years observing how the animals of the Galapagos evolved different traits in each of the islands' distinct ecosystems. When he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it sold out after only a few days. The story was compelling not only for its revolutionary theory of natural selection but because its narrative captured the readers' imaginations by taking them on an adventure of discovery to a far-off land. More than a century later, a panel of British booksellers, librarians, publishers, and scholars picked his work as the science story that has had the most influence on the world.
Studies on "brain-to-brain coupling" have shown that when storytellers describe evocative experiences, the listeners' brains light up in sync with the storyteller, so everyone feels the empathy of the collective experience.
Science stories can have an enormous social impact and be some of the most exciting stories to read, despite the perception that science can be dry, distant, and data-focused. The elements that make a science story engaging are not always as apparent as in an adventure story or a love story. Over the years, StoryMade Studio has worked with doctors, scientists, and scientific entrepreneurs to chart the twists and turns of many journeys of scientific discovery. We've learned many practical approaches that every science storyteller can use to evoke engagement and empathy.
The Neuroscience of Science Stories
Scientists witness exciting discoveries and fundamental changes that can help us reorient the direction of our society. Yet often, the drama and vividness of these experiences are lost, because scientists communicate ideas through the scientific method, which focuses on testing succinct hypotheses by analyzing data and presenting results. Scientific impartiality lends credibility but can often make the research feel distant. Neuroscience research has shown that using metaphors in science that evoke sound, smell, sight or taste can activate the sensory areas of the brain's cortex. Studies on "brain-to-brain coupling" have shown that when storytellers describe evocative experiences, the listeners' brains light up in sync with the storyteller, so everyone feels the empathy of the collective experience.
Tell a Cool Story
Scientists are trained to be precise and technical, so the language of scientific papers can be dry. A successful science story looks past the technical language and data and finds ways to personalize a discovery or idea so that non-scientists feel connected. Science is full of surprises, and this is good because unexpected things, like animal behavior or biological systems, or a radical hypothesis about human behavior, can capture the imagination. Like a good adventure story, a good science story can also have a hero. The story of a researcher's drive reveals the passion behind the scientific inquiry.
You don’t have to sacrifice the accuracy and precision of scientific facts to tell an exciting story
Start with a Question
Whether it's an up-close scene or an emotional anecdote, the beginning of a science story should compel your reader or viewer to ask: what's happening here? A thirst to find out the answer will inspire your reader or viewer to crave more and keep watching or reading. A good question that connects scientific research or a new hypothesis to current events will set the stage and explain why science is relevant to our lives.
Take Your Audience on a Journey
Once you ask the question, take your viewer or reader on a journey. This journey can dramatize the discovery by showing the ups and downs, including moments of skepticism and vulnerability in the lives of the people leading the research. These details of what's known as the "hero's journey" appear in myths and stories in cultures worldwide, because audiences connect profoundly with characters who struggle, learn and grow. Research shows that a character's experience follows a defined and quantifiable emotional arc. A good story is never static and progresses over time, with highs and lows that track the character's path in the unfolding drama.
And always remember there is a difference between drama and exaggeration in science stories. You don't have to sacrifice the accuracy and precision of scientific facts to tell an exciting story.