“Storytelling is essential because it determines whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic about science being able to solve our problems.” Jessica Fox on why science needs storytellers.
Science and storytelling are not often seen as natural bedfellows. Stories are more commonly associated with the make-believe, told for purposes of entertainment or escapism. Cast as being a million miles apart from the disciplinarian, truth-seeking nature of science. But in reality science and storytelling have a great deal to offer each other, at least when it comes to the communication of science. In this week’s episode of the Research Comms Podcast we’ll be exploring how storytelling can help drive clear communication of scientific ideas to all kinds of audience. And my guest, who will be helping me do that, is Jessica Fox: writer, filmmaker and science storytelling consultant. We speak about how she got into the world of science storytelling, why stories resonate with us so deeply, and how researchers can harness the power of story to engage people with their ideas.
How did you end up working at NASA as a storyteller?
NASA was looking back to the ancient art of storytelling to help them with some very modern problems. It was hiring artists, like me, to come in to find innovative ways to help the organisation communicate. It’s a distributed company, which means they have about thirteen campuses all over the U.S. and all those different campuses across the US have to coordinate for one mission and, in order for mission success to happen, communication is key. So, if one campus is creating one bit of the rocket, another campus is doing something else and then you have the tiers of different specialties within NASA, who all have their own language and way of communicating. You know, the engineers and the biochemists, and then you have the administrators and project managers, and then you have politicians, so communication is absolutely essential for these missions. And they were just trying to find better ways of communicating because when they looked at lessons learned from past missions, especially where there was a loss of human life - which you can't get greater stakes than that - they found they happened because of communication problems. So NASA is an amazingly proactive organisation, they're innovative, and they decided ‘actually let's hire some people who are really good at communication, like storytellers, to come and help us’, so that's what I was doing there.
I was running workshops and collecting stories and finding their communication problems and trying to find solutions for them. And one of the things we did was, we hired one of my favourite storytellers in the entire world, named Jay O'Callahan - if anyone is interested in storytelling they really need to know about his work - he is an oral storyteller, so he's someone who doesn't write anything down. He’s a storyteller with a big ‘S’, doing it the old school way. He lives within a community for a while, collects the stories within the community and then creates something like an artwork, sometimes a fictional story that speaks to the heart of the community and tells it back to them. It's a great way to reflect group identity and the lessons that a community has learned. It's an incredible thing and NASA was very fortunate to have him, so they hired him for a massive anniversary and he lived there for a year, and he went around the country and his final story is available online. And it made Buzz Aldrin cry, which I definitely think should be on the front of his CV!
Stories have always played an important part in human culture. Why are stories and myths so important to us?
I should say first that I love the scientific method, I will just put that out there! I don't think feelings or stories should be in the scientific method, I think it's awesome the way it is and I think science is incredible. But in terms of playing with the ideas that come out of science, our modern culture is far more rigid in the way we define disciplines than it was in the past. So, if we look at some myths, for example in terms of archetypes, we have Daedalus, he was one of the first artist-scientists, he was in Greek mythology, he created the Minotaur. And even in history we have people like Leonardo da Vinci, we call them polymaths but it wasn't unusual for someone to have to flex muscles in all those kinds of different disciplines. It’s only today that we’ve get slightly lopsided in terms of what our specialties are. And so being well versed in what makes a good story, and how to tell a good story matters. When I lived in Hawaii people would say “we talk story”, which is basically to have a conversation.
So we are natural storytellers, everyone's a natural storyteller, they have their cadence and their own rhythm, they're just not aware of it. It's how we communicate with each other, and people love stories. I've never met anyone who doesn't. It's primal, it's the way we relate, and create empathy, and learn lessons, and remember our history, and communicate anxiety, and look to the future in terms of aspirations and what we want to build. What we get out of stories…Joseph Campbell the great mythologist who helped create Star Wars and has amazing books, he always said that a functional mythology should incorporate the science knowledge of our times, so he really believed that for a story to be a proper mythology, and a modern mythology, it needs to incorporate the world as we know it.
So, he looked at the development of stories in the evolution of human society and looked at how our boundaries and horizons defined where our stories came from. So the hunter-gatherer societies looked at where the Sun was rising and setting; as time evolved a lot of our attention looked towards the land that was beyond our own, then we started looking at the micro when we got microscopes. So, nowadays I think Joseph Campbell - and this is the reason why he helped write Star Wars - his call to arms was asking ‘where are the boundaries of our visible horizons?’ and he really believed that they were in space. Now people might argue they could also be in the Large Hadron Collider and those boundaries of what we can see and what we know. But he really always believed for a mythology to function it needs to incorporate the science knowledge of our times and he felt that what stories did for us was ‘communicating the experience of being alive’.
How can science research organisations benefit from exploring their own stories?
A lot of science work has the challenge that because the concepts are often so complicated laypeople like me - or even politicians who have five minutes to understand something and are in charge of legislation - the science can be very difficult to understand. I had the honour of being able to be another resident storyteller recently at the Synthetic Biology Lab at Edinburgh University and they're doing really complicated work with the human genome and synthetic biology. I did not do well in my biology class at school, so if they can explain it to me then they really could explain it to anyone! And they have to be able to explain it because not only is it a requirement for government funding that you have to do public engagement but the people who are affecting policy, affecting where we want to go, they also need to understand it in about three minutes because they don't have a lot of time. And politicians should be far more well-versed in science than they are. So that's number one, being able to communicate what you do is important for the survival of what you do.
The second thing is about the aspiration about where we're going, and understanding why you're doing the work you're doing, and where you want to take the work that you're doing.
And then the third thing, quite simply, is dealing with anxiety, and dealing with communication issues, and dealing with people. Robots are not doing science work, it's people doing the science work, and people are flawed and they bring in their anxieties with them from their daily lives, and they might have personal issues with people at work. And the more you ask scientists to tell stories, the first stories they come up with are often nightmares. Because there is nowhere for them to let out the anxiety about what they're doing or the pressures.
That was going to be my next question, about the process that you go through when you go into an organisation. It sounds like maybe the first step is acting as kind of some sort of unofficial therapist?
The first thing I do is make sure I know what the organisation wants, so I go there and just listen and really hear about what their goals are. Sometimes they don't want to know what the anxieties are that are going on in there, I totally get that, so that's fine! Sometimes they just have a mandate to do some public engagement and that's all they want to do, sometimes they want to understand what the culture of their organisation is. And a lot of the time it's led by grant requirements but then they get a lot more out of it than they realised they would, once they start. At NASA purely it was about increasing communication and making sure it leads to mission success and they they had their own matrix about how they felt that went. I think creating a story that every single person at NASA knows verbatim, like that traveling oral story is probably the best thing that they could could have done.
And how do you identify and tease out the story for each person or institution you work with?
I do call it “nerd whispering”, which I have to stop doing because I don't think the clients like it that much! If I’m going into a private organisation that's not grant-funded and they're developing a technology, then they’re probably looking for help with their brand. In those cases I’ll go in and listen to them and I help tell them what their story is. A lot of it's about reflecting what I'm hearing and focusing on what lights up those lights that signal what story is. It's emotional, it may have metaphor or simile in it, it speaks directly to what they do, and it's easily communicable. And it makes me feel not bad. It doesn't have to be a purely positive story but if it's a meme, if it's something that's self-propagating and gets out there, it can't make you feel like s**t essentially. It has to be accurate and they have to be happy with it when they say it in their own words, they have to recognise it and say “that's exactly what we do, that feels right to me”, so that is a lot of the work I do with private companies.
With organisations like NASA or the Synthetic Biology Lab, recognising what their story is, I'm a lot more comfortable getting the scientists to tell their own story because they are the people who make up that organisation. And they're not trying to sell anything, they're really just trying to identify who they are and what they are, and doing that's a lot more of a complicated process. At NASA I did this and at the Synthetic Biology Lab I did this, I'd spend about six months just getting to know them. Getting to know scientists my favourite thing to do is - have you ever seen MTV Cribs? - my favourite thing to do with scientists is to go into their office and be like “tell me about that!”, they have such fun things, I love it. So I start getting to really know them and you know I can't put my finger on this but you start getting the shape of a person and the quality of them and what kind of stories they contain and after a while you start figuring out what stories might be powerful for people to hear.
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.