The power of storytelling…

human mind

  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life.  We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.

Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the  ‘neuroscience of the narrative’.  According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust.  Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy.  Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.

storyline

Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era

While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:            

 

“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)postliterate

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds.  The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

goldfish

The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding  text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.

The storytelling device and science communication

How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet.  We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media.  Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange.  This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself.  Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.

selfiessoundbytes.jpg

For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.

Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably.  Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…”  “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)

As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course.  How the story is told matters a great deal as well.  Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.

metaphor

Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character.  The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.

Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?

[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]

Select References/Resources:

Canadian Reality TV: a ‘storytelling’ avenue for ag, eh!

June 16, 2011

Misperceptions are pervasive around the agricultural industry and with agricultural practices.  We live in a world where the urban population is rapidly growing while that of the rural is dwindling.  As a society, we seem to be losing touch with our pioneering heritage and have become largely disconnected from our ‘rural roots’.  The advent of new agricultural technologies, including the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties, has created new opportunities for modern farming practice. However, these developments have also represented the rise of the agri-cynical ‘foodies’. The agriculture community now not only has to deal with the volatility of world trade markets and the weather, but also with the ‘urban armchair foodie-quarterback’ who often presumes a level of ag expertise and knowledge and often without ever even having set foot on a farm.

The pervasive question for ‘ag-vocates’ then becomes how do we reach this consumer? How do we change perceptions? I draw on a recent blog entry by Michele Payn-Knoper (Gate to Plate), a noted ag consultant in social media, where she poses this (related) question and challenges ag-vocates:

“…[W]hen was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?”

How do we put a human face to agriculture? Well, there are great strides being made by many ranchers and producers. They are all doing their part to ‘tell the agriculture story’ by leveraging social media tools through blogging, Twittering and Facebook. Personally, through Twitter, I have had the pleasure of connecting with the likes of @katpinke @JeffFowle @ShaunHaney @KMRivard @cowartandmore @wifeofadairyman @4GFarms @JPlovesCotton @waynekblack @agridome – the list goes on and on… Needless to say, I have learned a great deal from these folks through the information they pass along via Twitter and other online tools such as YouTube, personal blogs and Facebook.

It is evident that online social media has become an important part of the storytelling process.  But what of television? I mean, what better way to put a human face to agriculture than through reality TV?

“Dust Up” is a new reality reality show and is touted as ‘one rowdy rural ride through the world of crop dusting’.  For almost a hundred years, Canadians have used aircraft as aids in the protection of field crops, orchards, and forests from damage caused by insects and pests, fungi, fire and even frost.  The first known aerial application of agricultural materials was by a Kiwi named John Chaytor. In 1906, Chaytor spread seed over a swamped valley floor in New Zealand, using – of all things – a hot air balloon.  Over the past several decades, things have evolved considerably in terms of aerial mechanics – from fixed-wing aircraft in the early part of the century to the use of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, post-WWII.

“Dust Up” premiered in early June on History Television and it just happens to be filmed on location in my hometown area of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada (Go Bears!) This ag story revolves around three highly competitive aerial crop dusters, two – of which – are father and son (Bud and Brennan Jardine). In the air, these ‘aerial cowboys’ “…buzz inches above the fields – dodging trees and telephone wires – to deliver their payloads…” (Shaw Media Blog) while on the ground they entertain the “Dust Up” audience with family feuds, crisis management and survival strategies.  Shannon Jardine, daughter/sister and the show’s executive producer, appears to have hit the mark with this one – both in recognizing a ‘good story’ and in encouraging her family members to tell it in such a public way. This accomplished actor/producer has come a long way from the shy slip of a girl that I remember!

I have to compliment the “Dust Up” producers, publicists and principals.  They appear to have launched an excellent publicity campaign to promote the program and to raise its visibility. And they have effectively leveraged social media to accomplish this, connecting to viewers through Facebook, YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/DustUpTelevision) and Twitter (@DustUpTV). TV and social media are highly complementary in this case – you betcha

No matter where you farm in the world, ag-vocates all speak the same language – – – agriculture! Pesticides and fungicides play an important role in managing crops and in sustaining our food supply. The practice of aerial spraying represents a cost effective and timely way in which to protect our crops.  So, for a little drama in the sky and a whole lot on the ground – and relating ag on human terms – check out “Dust Up”! You won’t be disappointed!

“So far, the Spray Gods are on my side…” “Maverick” Brennan Jardine, Crop Duster.

“Dust Up” is produced by Paperny Films and Prairie Threat Entertainment in association with Shaw  Media and is televised Thursday evenings on History Television. Episodes of “Dust Up” can also be viewed online at: http://www.history.ca/video/default.aspx?releasePID=e_O2LOaF3eglAsFQHS7_RE_Am6YVYFYp

Want to meet some more ag storytellers? Michele Payn-Knoper provides a list of farm/ranchs blogs, ag-vocates, and other ag references: http://www.causematters.com/ag-resources/.  

 

References:

Estey, Ralph H. (2004). “Canadian use of aircraft for plant protection.” Phytoprotection. 85 (1). Pps: 7 – 12.

Globe and Mail. (2011). “Five Shows worth Watching.” (2011). Thursday, June 9. Available online at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/television/tv-photos/tv-five-shows-worth-watching-tonight-june-9/article2052335/

McCoy, Heath. (2011). “The Hazardous World of Crop Dusting.” Star Phoenix. June 2. Available online at: http://www.thestarphoenix.com/news/todays-paper/hazardous+world+crop+dusting/4878762/story.html

Payn-Knoper, Michele. (2011). “I eat. You farm. So what?” Michele Payn-Knoper’s Gate to Plate Blog. Available online at: http://www.causematters.com/advocacy/i-eat-you-farm-so-what/

Shaw Media Blog. (2011). “New series Dust Up premieres on History Television in June.” Available online at: http://www.throng.ca/dust/new-series-dust-premieres-history-television-june