4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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