Transcript: Science storytelling workshop with Josh Ettinger

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Josh Ettinger: Hello everyone, as you heard I’m a PhD student at here at Oxford and this is kind of my fun way of procrastinating my actual PhD research by doing something that feels productive and fun for me, because I just talk about film and television, which is something I’ve always loved, and continue to sort of pursue on the side of my PhD research.

So, let’s jump right in.

[Slide shows Cats movie poster with critics’ consensus short review from IMDB: Despite its fur-midable cast, this Cats adaptation is a clawful mistake that will leave most viewers begging to be let out of their mew-sury. Tomatometer rating 20% from a total count of 288; audience score 53% based on 6847 verified ratings. Production budget was 76 million GBP.]

So let’s talk about two movies that came out in 2019 to kick this off, so the first one is Cats, and Cats is kind of remarkable to me because, well, it had a budget of 80 million pounds, it had all the stars and yet it has among the worst reviews I’ve ever seen of any movie of all time. Well, here are a few of my favourite ones that I came across. “Oh God my eyes”,  “Will haunt viewers for generations” and my personal favorite, “A doctoral thesis could be written on how this misfire sputtered into existence”.

[Slide shows Parasite movie poster with critics’ consensus short review from IMDB: An urgent, brilliantly layered look at timely social themes, Parasite finds writer-director Bong Joon Ho in near total command of his craft. Tomatometer rating 99% from a total count of 356; audience score 93% based on 3572 verified ratings. Production budget was 7 million GBP.]

So, another movie that came out around the same time that you may have seen as well is Parasite, and this movie was made on a tenth of the budget and it’s considered one of the best films of the decade, and yeah, it won all of the awards for that year at the Oscars.

[Slide showing cast and crew of Parasite celebrating at the Oscars.]

So, I bring this up as an example that storytelling, it’s something that’s obviously important, whether you’re doing it, you know, telling a friend a story at the pub or all the way to the big screen it can be done well and it can be done poorly, right.

[Background slide shows a group of people sitting around a campfire at night, telling stories. Text reads: Whether round the campfire, on stage, at the pub or on the big screen… storytelling is a craft.]

[Slide shows three book covers: ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari which categorised as culture; ‘The storytelling animal: How stories make us human’ by Jonathan Gottschall which is categorised as cognition; and ‘The future we choose: Surviving the climate crisis’ by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac which is categorised as community.]

But there’s a lot of research that goes beyond just entertainment, the role of storytelling and entertainment, so at a cultural level if you’ve read ‘Sapiens’, the author talks a lot about the role of shared narratives, shared stories in societal development. There’s a good deal of neuroscience research about how the brain is structured for narrative thinking, for these sort of pattern-making, sort of seeing the same kind of patterns, and we see the same kinds of stories throughout human history. And also at a community level, so bringing people together to solve problems. Christiana Figueres in her most recent book talks about this bringing, what are the shared narratives that are going to drive how we solve problems.

[Slide with the title ‘Scientific evidence supporting storytelling’ shows the title and reference for research papers entitled: ‘Emergency physicians and personal narratives improve the perceived effectiveness of COVID-19 public health recommendations on social media: A randomized experiment’ by Rachel E Solnick, Grace Chao, Ryan D Ross, Gordon T Kraft-Todd and Keith E Kocher; ‘Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts’ by Emily Kubin, Curtis Puryear, Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray; ‘Personal stories can shift climate change beliefs and risk perceptions: The mediating role of emotion’ by Abel Gustafson, Matthew T. Ballew, Matthew H. Goldberg, Matthew J. Cutler, Seth A. Rosenthal and Anthony Leiserowitz; and ‘Telling stories, saving lives: Creating narrative health messages’ by Lauren B. Frank, Sheila T. Murphy, Joyee S. Chatterjee, Meghan B. Moran and Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati; ‘Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences’ by Michael F Dahlstrom.]

When it comes to communication, some of you may or may not be aware of this but there’s lots of evidence supporting storytelling, I mean, I come across these studies all the time and it relates to my own PhD research. Here’s one, this was two months ago that this came out, testing storytelling as a way of engaging people on COVID public health guidelines and they found rather than just saying, you know, keep a distance, wear a mask, if you have those messages packaged with a story from Emergency Room physicians it was much more powerful, and that was a study in the U.S. Similar studies bridging political divides, climate change communication, health communication. This paper is good, it’s a little dated but it’s a decent overview of the communications research out there if you’re interested.

[Slide showing article abstract for a paper titled ‘Using stories, narratives, and storytelling in energy and climate change research’ by Mithra Moezzi, Kathryn B. Janda and Sea Rotmann in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, volume 31, September 2017, pages 1 to 10. Keywords: Stories, Storytelling, Narratives, Imaginaries, Energy, and Climate change. The abstract reads: Energy and climate change research has been dominated by particular methods and approaches to defining and addressing problems, accomplished by gathering and analysing the corresponding forms of evidence. This special issue starts from the broad concepts of stories, narratives, and storytelling to go beyond these analytic conventions, approaching the intersection of nature, humanity, and technology in multiple ways, using lenses from social sciences, humanities, and practitioners’ perspectives.
The contributors use stories as data objects to gather, analyse, and critique; stories as an approach to research an inquiry; narrative analysis as a way of crystallising arguments and assumptions; and storytelling as a way of understanding, communicating, and influencing others. In using these forms of evidence and communication, and applying methods, analytical stances, and interpretations that these invite, something new and different results. This essay is a brief introduction to how, in our view, stories and their kin fit in energy and climate change research. We outline the diversity of data, approaches, and goals represented in the contributions to the special issue. And we reflect on some of the challenges of, and possibilities for, continuing to develop ‘stories’ as data sources, as modes of inquiry, and as creative paths toward social engagement.]

I also do come across storytelling in the energy research space.

[Slide titled ‘Scientific evidence supporting storytelling’ with text that reads: Storytelling can make information more accessible, more engaging and more persuasive. Stories can also be used for research.]

So overall I’d say the literature of the last 10 to 20 years on sort of the science of science communication finds that storytelling makes information more accessible, so if you’re speaking with a diverse audience, someone who might not have the expertise in your area, it can sort of lower the barriers to help them engage with your material, it’s also more entertaining, there’s nothing wrong with making our research and scientific findings more entertaining, it’s not an excuse to distort what we know and what we don’t know, but there’s nothing wrong with making it more fun, right.

And it’s more persuasive and that comes with a bit of responsibility again with science communication, but the evidence is there and something I’m not really speaking about today but I’m happy to chat with you if you’re interested or send you some resources, is that stories can also be used as a research method, collecting stories and sort of interpreting them to progress or the actual research itself.

[Slide showing the Hollywood sign with a clear sky behind and text that reads: ‘What can researchers learn from storytelling pros?’]

So, what I’m going to talk to you about though is a little bit of a different perspective because there’s been all this work around storytelling and I’m sure you’ve seen sort of storytelling courses and stuff for researchers, but to my own frustration as obviously you can hear I’m an American, I used to work in the entertainment industry and I’ve studied screenwriting for many years and it’s sort of a side hobby for me, and it frustrates me that we are, as researchers, kind of trying to reinvent the storytelling wheel when they are already brilliant experts out there who do this for a living.

They know how to tell stories and we should be learning from these artists, not only in Hollywood, which is what I’m focusing on today but across creative writing across industries, across cultures, but like I said I’m going to talk about really American screenwriting principles that I know and I can speak best to.

[Slide showing titles of three web articles written by Josh Ettinger: Article from Nature, ‘What Hollywood can teach researchers about scientific storytelling’ subtitled ‘Josh Ettinger says that screenwriting classes and a stint as a TV production intern have boosted his science communication skills; Article in Anthroposphere titled ‘Lights, camera, action’; and an article in Medium titled ‘Lessons from the office for climate change communication’.]

So it’s something I’ve been writing about for the last year or two, responding to articles from researchers claiming that storytelling is sort of unethical or distorts science, and you can read that article here if you want to dig into that, and my sort of counter response.

[Slide shows a correspondence article from the journal Nature, January 2021, titled ‘Storytelling can be a powerful tool for science’ by Josh Ettinger, Friederike E.L. Otto and Lisa F. Schipper. The article begins: Stories can be used to misrepresent science (M. Blastland et al. Nature 587, 362–364; 2020). But credible science communication and storytelling are not mutually exclusive — they can be great allies. In contrast with straight communication of experimental results, telling individual research stories portrays science as a human-driven endeavour, full of successes, uncertainties, missteps and failures, which in turn promotes transparency. What really matters is what story is being told and by whom.]

Nature has been taking this seriously as well and I contributed to this Nature online course on science communication.

[Slide showing screen shot of Nature masterclass ‘Narrative tools for researchers online course’, a course for researchers in the natural sciences who want to enhance their communication to their peers by using narrative tools to tell their research story.’]

[Slide titled ‘Storytelling and science’ with a photo of Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, and the cover of his book written with Amy Wallace ‘Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration’.]

So, the thing is, just to get into this a little bit, that storytelling and science and research are really quite similar. I like to talk about Pixar and this is a book by the founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull, and if you look into how they do it, it’s really a science of storytelling.

[Slide showing a photo of a group of writers in the Inside Out writers’ room, with laptops around a table, surrounded by walls of storyboards and pages of notes. Caption reads: Writers room = lab group: collaborative, experimental, peer-review, with an arrow pointing to Inside Out movie poster.]

So this is a picture from the Inside Out writers’ rooms, one of my favourite Pixar movies, there’s Bill Hader and he plays this character, there’s the director, he just came out that movie Soul, which you might have seen, and if you look at this it resembles a lab group to me, you have a bunch of people collaborating, running experiments, and they’re peer reviewing each other, and they ultimately arrive at these beautiful polished products, much in the way that we arrive with at the final scientific research paper.

[Slide titled ‘Screen writing principles’: 1. Once upon a time; 2. Opening hook; 3. But / therefore; 4. The hero’s journey; 5. Flaws and failures; 6. Save the cat; 7. Human… not humanity; 8. Raise the stakes; 9. Comic relief. A footnote reads: these are only guidelines, there are no storytelling rules. Slide also shows book covers for: ‘Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screen writing’ by Robert McKee; ‘Houston, we have a narrative’ by Randy Olson; ‘Save the cat’ by Blake Snyder; ‘The coffee break screenwriter’ by Pilar Alessandra; ‘The Screenwriter’s Bible: A complete guide to writing, formatting, and selling your script’ by David Trottier; ‘Screenplay: The foundations of screenwriting’ by Syd Field; and ‘The anatomy of story’ by John Truby.]

So for the next 15 to 20 minutes I’m going to give you just a quick sort of flash tour of the kinds of principles that these writers think about when they’re in the writer’s room. They come from classes I’ve taken, screenwriting classes I’ve taken, as well as these kinds of books, the screenwriting 101 kind of guidelines.

They’re not really rules, they’re principles, and it’s the kind of thing, like a creative writing teacher I took, the first thing he told us is you have to know the rules in order to break them. So of course there are exceptions to these rules, but these are definitely, most good film and television, at least in terms of ratings, will abide by at least some of these rules. So okay, with that said, let’s jump in.

[Slide titled ‘1. Once upon a time…’ Accompanying text: why tell this story? What problem are you trying to solve? Image shows a silhouette of a cartoon girl with long curly hair, holding a bow and arrow with a quiver of arrows. The text reads ‘Once upon a time there was [blank space]. Every day, [blank space]. One day [blank space]. Because of that, [blank space]. Until finally [blank space]. Footnote reads ‘from the 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar.’]

So at the most basic level, why are you telling a story? And it’s amazing how often we forget to think about this, if you know someone who just kind of rambles on and on, and they kind of don’t get to the point of what they’re talking about it’s because they haven’t thought of, you know, what is the purpose of the story.

In the research context, it’s really what problem are you trying to solve? And this comes from a Pixar sort of storytelling guidebook that came out, and it’s the fairy tale model, it’s once upon a time there was blank. Everyday blank. One day something happened because of that these things happened until finally blank. Essentially, what was the status quo, what happened and what changed as a result of that occurrence? That’s really stories at the most basic level.

[Slide titled: ‘2. What is the best way to start your story?’ Text reads: Open with a question; ‘in media res’ which is Latin for ‘in the midst of things’. Still images from movies The Dark Knight, Inception, and Dunkirk are also included, long with a close-up photo of a fishing hook.]

Now, getting a little bit more into the technical aspects, when it comes to writing a script, what is the best way to start your story? You all actually know this if you watch anything on Netflix, or really, most television, most films, they start with this hook. It’s this action-packed scene, you don’t really know what’s going on, you don’t know who the characters are but it hooks you, and this is across creative writing. Christopher Nolan does this all the time and really you’re opening this question in people’s minds, what’s going on here? I’m going to keep watching this to find out what this is all about.

[Slide shows a graph of Greenland GSIP2 ice core temperature for the last 10,000 years. The temperature ranges from minus 32.5 degrees C to minus 28.5 degrees C. The Minoan warming peak reached minus 28.75 degrees C, Roman warming minus 29.5 degrees, Medieval warming minus 30.5 degrees, and the Little Ice Age dipped below minus 32 degrees. Greenland ice core temperature in 1950 was minus 31.6 degrees.]

So how do you apply this in a research context? Well let’s say you’re giving a presentation, and I see this all the time, let’s say you were a researcher doing sort of ice core research measuring CO2 concentrations. So oftentimes scientists have this tendency to start with the big picture.

[Image shows researchers collecting ice cores from an ice sheet.]

A writer would tell you that’s the exact wrong approach, a screenwriter would start with the field work, so especially when you’re speaking to people outside your specialty, talk about, sort of, what you were doing, don’t give it all away yet. So, in this case it would say, here I am in Greenland, collecting ice, and then your audience asks, okay, what the heck is this person doing up there? And then you bring in the science and it’s subtle, it doesn’t distort the science whatsoever but it hooks people, it gets them interested.

[Slide showing movie posters for Cats and Parasite.]

And you can do this, there’s all sorts of ways of doing this even if it’s not as dramatic as collecting ice. I do this in all my talks, or at least whenever I can, I started with the Cats and Parasite anecdote, and I could have just started right with my main thesis but I didn’t, and if my theory here is correct, I grabbed your attention from the beginning.

[Slide titled: ‘3. Therefore / but.’ Text reads: The key words that drive a story are ‘therefore’ and ‘but’. Photo shows Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and the Book of Mormon musical.]

I can take a break for talking for a moment and I want to show you a quick video from the creators of South Park and also the Book of Mormon musical about a principle that they use in their writing.


[Video titled: ‘Writing advice from Matt Stone and Trey Parker @ NYU | MTVU’s ‘Stand In’.’ Video transcript: Matt Stone and Trey Parker knock on a door in a long corridor. Cut to Fabian Valdez who is with a small audience of students and introduces Matt and Trey as they enter the auditorium:
Fabian: Please welcome the Emmy award-winning writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
Trey: Our whole South Park writers’ room one whole wall is one of these (indicating an interactive white board) and we’ve got it split up and into three acts.
Matt: We have different coloured markers just like here too, look. We have that.
Trey: And I walk around with the markers like this and we’ll go okay, we’ll do a show about this.
Matt: This isn’t like a writers’ room [laughs].
Trey: This would be a funny scene if we had this. Each individual scene has to work as a kind of funny sketch, you don’t want one scene that’s like what was the point of that scene. We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have heard before but it took us a long time to learn it, but we can take these beats which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re [bleep] basically, you’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. Right? So, what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, it’s like, okay this happens, right, and then this happens. No no, it should be this happens and therefore this happens, but this happens therefore this happens. As soon as we are able to, and literally sometimes we’ll write it out to make sure we’re doing it, we’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay, this happened but then this happens and that affects this, and that does to that, and that’s why you get a show that feels like, okay, this to that to this to that but this, here’s the complication, to that. And there’s so many scripts we read from new writers and things that we see…
Matt: I see movies and yeah, you’re watching and it’s like this happened and then this happens and then this happens, that’s when you’re in the movies and you think what the [bleep] am I watching this movie for? It’s just like this happened and then this happened and that’s not a movie, you know, that’s not a story. Like Trey said, those two – but, because, therefore – that gives you the causation between each beat and that makes, that’s a story.
Trey: Yeah.]

[Video ends]

Josh: Okay great, so hopefully that’s relatively straightforward, it’s really thinking about what is the narrative and what information do we need and do we not need.

[Slide titled: ‘How to apply this?’ Text reads: Research proposal structure. First column: Researchers have looked at X and then they found X and then we thought about this work and then we realised we could run an experiment that accomplished X and then we ran the experiment and then we found… Second column: Prior researchers have looked at X BUT there is a research gap THEREFORE our study fills the gap by… Footnote reads: for more on this, check out ‘And/But/Therefore (ABT) theory’ from Randy Olson Story Circles]

So how do you apply this in a research context? So let’s say you’re writing a research proposal or even a paper, and you often come across abstracts that are sort of, research I’ve looked at this and then they found this, and then we thought about it and then we realised we could do this, and it just goes on and on.

What happens if we use this therefore but principle? Prior researchers have looked at this but there is this research gap therefore our study fills this gap by doing this. It’s the same information it’s just streamlined, and I’m just, I’m co-authoring a paper and I was sent the draft yesterday and the literature review, it was a complete mess, it was an accurate sort of description and a good comprehensive look at everything that’s been done, but there was no narrative to it, it needed to be pulled together into a story, and so I’m working with them just trying to streamline that.

There’s a science communication expert named Randy Olson, I just took a course with him and thought it was great. He took this but / therefore theory and expanded it out into several books on the topic which I would recommend if you’re interested in this.

[Slide titled: ‘4. The hero’s journey: how do your characters change?’ Image shows cover of ‘The hero with a thousand faces’ by Joseph Campbell, and a line drawing showing the hero’s journey chart. The chart begins in the normal world, the hero receives a call to adventure, then meets a mentor.
The hero crosses the threshold into the unknown where they meet a helper, and they go through trials and failure, but as a result they grow and find new skills. The next phase is the lowest point of the journey, death and rebirth. This results in a revelation where the hero finally changes, and achieves atonement, before receiving a gift as they cross back into the normal world as a changed person.]

Okay number four, halfway through now, so the hero’s journey you’ve probably heard of this, it comes from this guy Joseph Campbell, who is sort of an academic or psychologist mythologist, but essentially it’s a complex theory that stories around the world have the same structure.

[Slide shows stills from Star Wars movies depicting Boba Fett with Grogu, and Luke Skywalker with an adult Yoda.]

[Slide shows a line drawing of Dan Harmon’s story circle: 1. Comfort zone; 2. Need or desire; 3. Unfamiliar situation; 4. Adaptation; 5. Get what they wanted; 6. But pay a price; 7. Return to comfort; 8. Having changed. The slide also includes an image of animated characters, Rick and Morty.]

You don’t need to worry about this journey, all the steps in the journey, a lot of writing workshops get into that, yeah and it inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars, directly Rick and Morty, the creator Dan Harmon relies on his own version of it.

The key thing is to think about how do characters change as a result of the story.

[Slide titled: ‘How to apply this?’ Image of a hazard sign with a wiggly line and an arrow at one end. Image caption reads: Research fits this model perfectly. Slide text reads: Instead of just presenting your findings, describe how you reacted to those discoveries – what was most exciting? What did you get wrong? How did it change your understanding?]

Good stories, stories that resonate, have character growth, we all know this from what we watch, and this is something I really feel strongly about and I really feel like this has been ignored. Research fits this model perfectly, so there’s this tendency in research, we present what we found, and it’s even hard to publish things that were failures, right, but it turns through a story perspective, the human aspects of it, the failures, the mistakes, what you learned, how you grew how how your findings change the way you perceive the world or perceive your research area, that is actually the most fascinating stuff from a story perspective. And we should give that greater attention.

[Slide shows a screenshot of an article from JGR Biosciences journal titled ‘Once Upon a Time, in AmeriFlux’ by Joshua B. Fisher, Trevor F. Keenan, Christin Buechner, Gabriela Shirkey, Jorge F. Perez-Quezada, Sara H. Knox, John M. Frank, Benjamin R.K. Runkle and Gil Bohrer. The opening paragraph of the first chapter reads: 1 Chapter 1. The King and the Knights. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (or, what felt like a long time, as time seemed blurred under quarantine [Ogden, 2020]), the land of AmeriFlux fell under the cruel rule of the powerful King Covid the 19th. The people of AmeriFlux were forbidden… An illustration for the cover of the article shows mountains, a deep valley and a foreboding castle with a pointed-roof turret. Armies of people are corralled in groups, while a dragon circles above them.]

I gave this talk a few months ago to Yadvinder Mali, who’s in Oxford research Professor, he does ecology work, and there was a group of people in the talk who were writing up a conference proceedings, and they took this hero’s journey model that I presented and they really went overboard with it in a way, but I was so happy to see it that they submitted an article in a story format, and they even commissioned an artist to do a cover for it. Yeah, so it could have just been a standard conference proceedings, we talked about this, we talked about that, but they turned it into this mythical thing, and the journal was quite receptive to it.

[Slide shows small images of well-known film and TV characters: Cobra Kai, Wall-E, Fleabag and Indiana Jones. Text reads: 5. The power of character flaws. Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist writes: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”]

Number five, character flaws. If you attend a workshop and among writers if you want to know how to create a compelling character, it’s always the character flaw, you know Superman has Kryptonite, Indiana Jones has snakes, he’s afraid of snakes. I just always put new stuff based on what I’m watching on Netflix, Fleabag, her character is deeply flawed, but the thing is that we actually connect more with characters who have flaws like us, instead of these perfect people and as this one Pixar writer put it, you admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Now, tell me that’s not a completely different paradigm than the way research works these days, which is just so focused on publishable sort of groundbreaking results, and it’s sort of ignoring that process oftentimes, yeah.

[Slide titled: ‘How to apply this?’ Text reads: Research / career failures offer fantastic story material which is important for mentoring / teaching. Image shows a still from a TED talk by Brené Brown titled ‘The power of vulnerability’.]

And from my perspective as a PhD student, I would really like to hear more about these career journeys from people who are more advanced than me in their field, in my field. And again there’s also this Ted Talk from Brené Brown about being vulnerable is actually a really powerful way of connecting with people, and it makes complete sense.

[Slide titled: ‘Save the cat.’ Text reads: Once you’ve chosen a character (or characters), give us a reason to care about them / support them early on. Image shows the cover of ‘Save the cat! The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need’ by Blake Snyder which features a ginger cat clinging on to a rope. Additional stills from the animated movie of Aladdin show: Aladdin and the monkey; Aladdin confronted by a group of guards; followed by Aladdin giving bread to homeless children.]

Number six, and don’t worry about memorising all the details of these it’s just giving you an overview. Now this one’s called save the cat, and it’s a fun one, it’s known by a lot of writers, but it’s a bit controversial. The theory goes that characters we like do some kind of sympathetic action in the beginning of a movie or a TV show, and this is something I constantly see.

So Aladdin is one of the cases the book cites on this, that I think is a very straightforward example. If you remember the classic scene the first in the animated movie, he steals the bread he runs from the guards, he sings a song I think, and perhaps you remember what happens next. He gives the bread to homeless children and it’s like a two second little clip of him doing that. But apparently the first draft of the movie didn’t have that scene, he just stole the bread and ran away, and audiences were like okay, why am I going to support a common thief for the rest of this film? And they added in this little clip and it can help sort of get people on board to support your character. Now that’s quite manipulative from a writing perspective.

[Slide shows a still from John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, with a dishevelled Keanu Reeves as John Wick in the back seat of a car, speaking to his dog.]

Oh yeah, I do see it, I add clips in all the time, I see it constantly even in John Wick, which I watched recently which is just a really bloody action film and he, oh he’s a bloody killer but he loves his dog , we should support him, which is just kind of silly but it really does work.

[Slide titled: ‘How to apply this?’ Text reads: NGOs often do this instinctively, highlight empathetic actions, e.g. showing animals or conservationists working in the field with wildlife. The message for researchers: Portray beneficiaries of your research. Photo of conservationist Jane Goodall with a baby chimpanzee.]

But I’m not saying you have to do this literally in your work, but it’s just something to think about, trying to identify what work are you doing or the sort of projects that you’re trying to talk about, what work is empathetic, what work shows that you’re doing something good for the world. It’s really the impact of your research, right, it’s just talking about who’s going to benefit from this, and we’ll get into this, it comes very easily in an ecology conservation subject, but there’s all sorts of ways of thinking about this.

[Slide titled: ‘Tell a story about a human… not humanity.’ Text reads: Expand the scope afterwards. Images show two people pushing a car off a flooded road; a family walking through flood water in Africa; a family sheltering from flood water, sitting on a bed that is raised off the ground in a structure made from bamboo and corrugated iron. Footnote: Images from Climate Visuals.]

Now this is one in my own communication roles, I’m helping lots of groups try to think about this, a lot of NGOs do this instinctively, but when you’re trying to communicate effectively you don’t want to talk about an entire population, you want to start small, talk about that specific person, and you’ve seen this in television ads from charities and things, right, they tell a specific story and the science really shows that this works.

[Slide shows a screenshot of an article titled: ‘Explaining the identifiable victim effect’ by Karen Jenni and George Loewenstein in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14: 235–257 (1997). Abstract reads: It is widely believed that people are willing to expend greater resources to save the lives of identified victims than to save equal numbers of unidentified or statistical victims. There are many possible causes of this disparity which have not been enumerated previously or tested empirically. We discuss four possible causes of the identifiable victim effect and present the results of two studies which indicate that the most important cause of the disparity in treatment of identifiable and statistical lives is that, for identifiable victims, a high proportion of those at risk can be saved.]

It’s often, in psychology it’s called the identifiable victim effect, showing just one person increases people’s willingness to sort of expend resources to support a cause rather than talking about the 10 million people who are affected by an issue.

[Slide shows a screenshot from an online article by Brooke Jarvis in the New York Times magazine, The Climate Issue (2019) titled: ‘Climate change could destroy his home in Peru. So he sued an energy company in Germany. Local communities are taking the world’s largest polluters to court. And they’re using the legal strategy that got tobacco companies to pay up.’ Image shows a Peruvian man in the Andes, looking directly at the camera.]

A friend of mine does research here at Oxford on climate litigation, and he effectively talks about this case about one Peruvian farmer who’s suing a German energy company, and that is sort of a way of getting people into it, they understand okay, what is climate litigation and then you expand out from the specific story of quite a dramatic and interesting character as well. And I thought I’d show you a clip relevant to your work, with a familiar face that I think gets across the principle quite nicely [Music].

[Video titled: ‘An eco-renovation’ shows the exterior of a brick-built Victorian house in Oxford, on a sunny day in spring. The house has a small front garden with flowering shrubs. Two people emerge from the front door and speak to camera before inviting the viewer into the house.
Hello my name is Richard, and my name is Tina, and this is our house which we’ve been eco renovating for the past nine years. Come inside and have a look…

Great, I’m not going to show the whole video, but yeah, Tina participated in this quick filmmaking project and instead of just talking about eco renovation and broad-brush terms, telling that for people who are unfamiliar with this, seeing okay, here are two real people who actually did this in their home, that is really effective powerful storytelling used to communicate, really, something that gets a little more technical later on.

[Slide titled: ‘8. Raise the stakes’. Text reads: Why does this research matter? A graphic describes the three-act structure: Act one – set-up. At points along a line angled upwards are: Beginning; inciting incident; second thoughts; and then climax of act one. Act two – confrontation – continues the line upwards with points marking two obstacles which are described as ascending action, to a midpoint labelled as ‘a big twist’. Act two continues the line upwards with points noted as obstacle; disaster; and crisis, ending at the climax of act two. Act three – resolution – begins at this point with the line now heading downwards and is described as descending action. This is the climax of act three, and ends with points noted as warp-up and the end. A second image shows the cover of a book: ‘Avoid the dreaded “so what” screenplay – create story stakes that actually mean something’ by]

Okay, two more. This is something if you’ve ever attended any writing workshops of course you’ve come across this sort of the three-act structure, don’t worry about all these steps, and in fact a lot of science storytelling workshops get too far into this in my opinion.

The key point is you just want to show why your research matters, and when you feel like you’re getting really into the technical details, really try to pull out like, okay, why is this relevant to the overall picture? Most movies and television fail in the middle, right, you start watching and then it gets boring and then you quit. So writers are often thinking about how do we keep escalating the action.

[Slide titled: ‘8. Raise the stakes’ with text that reads: Why does research matter? Second column of text reads: Prior researchers have looked at X BUT there is a research gap THEREFORE our study fills the gap by… BUT our results conflict with… THEREFORE our study has implications for…]

And that’s important for us, so let’s continue on from our little abstract we put together right. So we’ve identified a research gap, our study fills this gap by doing this, so once we’ve done our study but our results conflict with this theory, these papers, therefore our study has implications for this. And it’s just continuing that linear chain of causality to try to really just get to the most important story, what’s going on here? Why is it important?

[Slide titled ‘9. Comic relief’ with text that reads: Can climate change be a laughing matter? A still image from an episode of ‘Climate change debate: Last week tonight’ with John Oliver above text that reads: Key point – be aware of your story’s emotional journey. Link to video on YouTube:]

I don’t think I have time to show this video, but there are ways of using humour effectively and some people are more comfortable than others. I think a good strategy, if you want to try it, is to test it out, you can, you know do a practice presentation or, for writing it’s a little trickier but the key thing is to be aware of the emotional journey of your work, how are people reacting emotionally and if it’s a really depressing subject, are there ways that you can balance it out?

[Slide titled: ‘Greenpeace / Iceland palm oil ad’ with text that reads: 70 million plus views; petition with more than 1 million signatures; and a subsequent children’s book. Image is a still from the animated Greenpeace / Iceland ad showing an orangutan peering at a shampoo bottle.]

Right, okay, so that’s these are the nine principles and I wanted to show you quickly an example of this. So you perhaps saw this about a year or two ago, two years ago, I guess, this Greenpeace Iceland Supermarket ad, and regardless of how you feel about it, it was a huge success, it had some issues being banned from television and that even escalated it further, but there was a children’s book, 70 million views, petitions about palm oil, and in fact the science is actually not so clear that we want to ban palm oil, that’s a separate story.

[Slide titled: ‘Greenpeace / Iceland palm oil ad’ with text that reads: 1. The once upon a time model; 2. First act hook (open with a question); 3. Therefore / but; 4. The hero’s journey; 5. Flaws and failures; 6. Save the cat; 7. Tell a story about a human… not humanity (expand scope later); 8. Raise the stakes; 9. Comic relief. Link to video:]

So I just want you to watch this ad and see if you can identify any of these principles.

[Transcript for embedded video:
Young child [sitting on a high bed]: There’s orangutan in my bedroom and I don’t know what to do, she plays with all my teddies and keeps borrowing my shoe. She destroys all of my houseplants and she keeps on shouting boo, she throws away my chocolate and she howls at my shampoo. [young orangutan runs around the bedroom, causing havoc]
Child: There’s orangutan in my bedroom and I don’t want her to stay so I told the naughty orangutan that she had to go away. Orangutan in my bedroom, just before you go, why were you in my bedroom? I really want to know. [orangutan heads towards the bedroom door, video cuts to a scene of deforestation, logging trucks and fleeing adult orangutans]
Orangutan: There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do. He destroyed all of our trees for your food and your shampoo. There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do, he took away my mother and I’m scared he’ll take me too. There are humans in my forest and I don’t know what to do, they’re burning it for palm oil so I thought I’d stay with you.

Child: Orangutan in my bedroom now I do know what to do, I’ll fight to save your home and I’ll stop you feeling blue. I’ll share your story far and wide so others can fight too. Oh orangutan in my bedroom, I swear it on the Stars the futures not yet written but I’ll make sure it is ours.

[Music, video ends]

[Slide titled: ‘How can you apply these principles in your work? Text reads: A few questions to ask yourself: What is the main problem I’m trying to solve? Why does my research matter? Who benefits from my work? Who are the main characters? What were the key moments – successes and failures – in the research journey?]

It’s an effective ad, from a story perspective. Right, so just to go through, so yeah, there’s a clear reason for this story, there’s a hook in the beginning, as noted there’s a therefore / but, quite linear and straightforward, she goes on this journey of discovery, she has her own flaws, she doesn’t realise the damage of her shampoo, save the cat, that’s quite apparent.

This one I didn’t see someone mention, but it starts out with sort of that micro-story the one girl, the one orangutan, in her room and then it expands out to the broader issue, and it just carries a real punch because of that, yeah, and the stakes are constantly sort of building over time, it even starts off a little funny, right, it’s a little quirky at the beginning before it gets too heavy.

So I know that’s a completely different context, that’s like NGO advocacy work and that’s very different from the work you’re doing, but I think it gets across some of those principles nicely. So, thinking about these principles, a few questions that you can ask yourself to try to implement them: what is the main problem I’m trying to solve? Why does this research matter? Who’s going to benefit from it? Why should someone who doesn’t work on this care about it? Who are the main characters that we can identify with and maybe use their stories with their permission? And what were the key moments, including the big successes but also the failures, and particularly not just a failure but something that we learned from, something that we grew from, to show why our work is even better because of this experience, and thinking about it as not just an outcome but a research journey.


Banner photo credit: Maia Habegger on Unsplash