Research Comms Podcast: Will Storr on The Science of Storytelling

‘It really is true when when I say to people that if you're not communicating with story then you're not communicating.’ Will Storr on his latest book ‘The Science of Storytelling.’

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Will Storr is an award winning author, journalist and storytelling speaker, whose most recent book ‘The Science of Storytelling’ unpicks why ‘Story’ is such an essential part of being human, and how we can use science and our understanding of the human brain to become better, more powerful storytellers and, by extension, better communicators. 

The below is a short excerpt of my interview with Will Storr. For the full interview download the podcast.

Storytelling has become a bit of a buzzword lately - why do you think that is?

You’re right, it does seem like everyone’s talking about storytelling at the moment and it's probably past its peak a little bit, especially in the corporate sphere, but the scientific approach is a bit different because it's premised on the idea that storytelling isn't some kind of cool trick you can learn, and it isn't something that was designed by amazing clever people back in the day. Storytelling is what the brain does; stories are how we experience our day-to-day lives. And actually what storytellers have done over the centuries by practice and instinct, is work out how the brain creates this illusion, which is our life. And so that was the big lightbulb moment for me a few years ago when I realised that while I was researching my book ‘The Heretics’, which is a book about the psychology of belief. So, yes, it happens to be a bit of a fad at the moment but really it's anything but a fad.

Story is how the brain works; story is how human society works. We’re bound together by our stories, so I feel the pain of some people saying “Oh God, storytelling!” but it really is true when when I say to people that if you're not communicating with story then you're not communicating. There are some fundamental truths about how we should communicate with each other that come from story, and which come from brain, and mind.

So how did story become such an integral part of who we are as humans?

We spent the vast majority of our time on earth, more about 99 percent of it living in hunter-gatherer tribes. So, for charges of around 150 people without a judiciary without a police force without a prison and newspapers so and you know humans were tens of thousands of years ago like humans are now our brains haven't evolved that much so we had to there has to be a way of policing that our tribes getting to were to cooperate with each other because the secret of human success the reason that the our particular species of ape has managed to take over the world and the other species of ape hasn't is that we're amazingly good at working together we're amazing good at working as a team at division of labor one psychologist press runs and Heights as we part eight Part B you know we've got this magic blend so that's so that's the question how did we

do that how did we get everyone to work together because humans a we can'lovely but we can't be idiots - we can be selfish idiots a lot of the time obviously and so we do that with story we do it with gossip we'd swap stories about each other was gossipy stories in which somebody was was being selfish which is so that's putting their own interest before the group before the tribe would have triggered this very specific emotional moral outrage which motivates us to act so back in the tribal days in a motivated us motivated us to punish that transgressor either kind of by humiliation or mockery or by ostracization kicking them out the tribe or ultimately by violence and so that's how the that's how we police the tribe that's ever got that gave one to cooperate but we swap stories and one of the dominant theories about language at the moment is that human language evolved in the first place to swap gossip and so that's how absolutely integral storytelling is to us and you can see all kinds of storytelling in asimilar light you know Anna Karenina is in a way it's gossip it's the gossip about a marriage going wrong so there's always that well there's very often that that quality is about storytelling and you know probably goes first weighs almost always in mass-market stories I think in storytelling that really has the power to grip thousands tens of thousands hundred thousands of people it's always got that gossipy element that's always peep people doing stuff wrong and getting people getting their revenge on those people that you know we're still telling those stories now

One of the things that seems to set your book apart from other guides to storytelling is that instead of focusing mostly on plot and structure you focus on the importance of strong characters. How does that align with the scientific approach?

So, if you're not approaching the puzzle of story from a scientific point of view, you're approaching it from a structural point of view. You almost have to do that because since Aristotle what story analysts have done is they've taken all the successful stories and they've put them next to each other and they've said, “what have they got in common?” and they've worked out what they’ve got in common and they've said “well, this is what story is, they’ve got to have these elements”.

So there's really no way of attacking that problem without coming up with the structure because what you come up with is, like, “well first this happens and then this happens and then this happens” and that's kind of how you communicate those ideas, so that's led to a very ‘structure first’ understanding of story. And that's been hugely successful. Star Wars, most famously, was based on Joseph Campbell's ‘monomyth’. But when you look at story from a scientific point you're looking at character because that’s what is interesting from a psychological perspective, and that’s the ‘character first’ approach.

But it also makes sense because, again, the root of storytelling is gossip and gossip is about character, the subtext is all about character. It's asking that fundamental question, which lots of our best stories ask, which is “who is this person? Are they a good person or a bad person?” That's fundamentally what gossip asks and lots of our most successful stories play with that question.

How does that work with storytelling in science communication then, when most science isn’t done by a single person, or character, but by whole teams of people?

There's a big tension there because story tends to be about a person, the protagonist coming up against these great odds, and it’s those odds that show us who that person really is. Are they good person or a bad person? Or in a scientific story, are they right or are they wrong? You know, is their idea true or is it false? Are they wise or are they not wise? Those are those big questions and yeah, I mean, I've done lots of science writing before and that's one of the tensions and probably a compromise that you have to make is that in ‘story world’ it's this pioneering brave scientist and she's got this great idea and the establishment think it's nonsense but of course in reality it's much more collegiate, and there are great teams of people behind the research. So good science storytelling walks that line very carefully, especially if you’re telling a true story you have a responsibility to the truth. But also coming from scientific culture, often the people that you're writing about, and I understand why, take offence because they’re like, “there's eight authors on this paper and you're just talking about this one person!” so yeah there is a tension there.

Science stories do have one big advantage though, don’t they? In the sense that people are naturally drawn to filling gaps in their knowledge, so it should be an easy win for science communicators to play on that?

Yeah, it's a really easy win and lots of really great scientific storytelling and also police procedural dramas draw on those same ideas. And this is the kind of George Lowenstein idea of information gaps, whereby people become spontaneously curious when you present them with an incomplete information set, so you say “here's some stuff, here are some facts about the world” and there's a plank removed and people want to know “what's missing?” For example, Malcolm Gladwell's a master of that stuff, making you spontaneously curious. One of my favourite stories that I reference in the book is his story, The Ketchup Conundrum, which is this brilliant, gripping story about, of all things, why nobody has made a tomato ketchup that can rival Heinz. I mean it’s such a boring idea. I was a features editor for years and if somebody pitched me that I'd be like, “You're off the list” and yet it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read, so he's a bit of a genius at things like that.

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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.