Research - Storytelling and science communication


Ruben Riosa, member of the Editorial Team of the MCAA, describes why we should start using storytelling to communicate our research findings and how much we can learn from one of the greatest communicators of our era.

Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO, apart from being a technological genius and an innovator, changed the way we now communicate and share information. He was an effective communicator thanks to his capacity to speak with passion and make his ideas (as well as the new technologies Apple was presenting) understandable and memorable. But how did he do that? What were his secrets?

Storytelling, demonstrations, and clarity.

Moreover, he always presented one idea at a time, without the support of an overly busy presentation. He never used technical jargon because he knew he had to connect with the audience at a human level. He wanted (and succeeded) to create a physical and emotional connection.

Freytag’s dramatic story structure

Freytag’s dramatic story structure

In the year 1860, Freytag, a dramatist, theorised that drama should be divided into five parts (or acts):1

• Exposition: the situation before the ‘act’ starts;
• Rising action: a series of conflict and a crisis;
• Climax: the turning point, an intense moment of the story;
• Falling action: the action which follows the climax;
• Denouement: the conclusion, the new situation.

Thanks to this structure, we can represent the ‘what is’ section with the present situation, which carries all the problems and the limitations. And this part is compared to the ‘what could be’ section, which represents the new development, or the new product, which solves all the problems of the present. The ending represents the ‘utopia,’ a world described using the new concept, a new beginning.

Steve Jobs’ products launch presentation

Mr. Jobs was an excellent communicator partly because he effectively managed to apply this technique to his product launch. Using his incredible communications skills, he was able to connect with the audience. He identified the ‘what is,’ with the current products which are not innovative, and the ‘what could be,’ with the new product. Concluding of course with the actual launch of the new product (‘new bliss’), the new norm in the world.

He not only described the technical innovation/product but also created a story around every apple innovation/product.

This one was a winning strategy because when you connect with the audience at an emotional level, you will be able to transmit to them your message, in Mr. Jobs’ case a product.

How to apply it to Science Communication?

Sometimes scientists still need to understand that to successfully deliver a message to a non-expert audience there is a need to connect with them. Throwing data or difficult concepts without further explanations is not efficient. On the contrary, you don’t connect with your audience and you end up being as boring as incomprehensible.

Communication can be defined as the act of giving, receiving, or exchanging ideas, information, or messages through various media, which enables a person or a group of people to receive or to give away a piece of information.

Thus, we (scientists and researchers) need to create a connection with our audience. And this connection cannot be created by only listing our findings or displaying an infinite number of graphs and figures as it were our grocery list. We need to make our audience enter into our story; we need to lead them through our 5-acts scientific theatrical representation.

Our new findings can easily fit this structure. The ‘what is now’ part represents the world we live in, our problems, our limitations, the ‘what could be’ can be our findings, the way we are going to change the world.

How can we connect with the audience?

We need to learn from communicators like Steve Jobs, from storytelling, from theatre and other arts: our messages have to tell a story. How can we do it? Some quick tips:

• The story of our research must fascinate our audience. We need the ‘wow’ effect in our story, the sense of wonder;
• We need to use the correct language: we cannot use scientific jargon, but at the same time we do not have to underestimate the readers’ knowledge. We need to find a balance;
• We need to find the story within the science, not the vice-versa.

To conclude and to come back to the beginning of this article with a quote from Mr. Jobs:

“You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate your ideas, it doesn’t matter.”

It is the same with science as well, a scientific breakthrough or discovery means nothing if it is not properly communicated.

1. A more detailed analysis can be found in Nancy Duarte’s 2011 TED Talk entitled ‘The secret structure of great talks’.

Ruben Riosa
MCAA Newsletter Editorial Team

Freytag, G. (1863). Die Technik des Dramas. Leipzig: Hirzel.
Ivic, R. K., & Green, R. J. (2012). Developing Charismatic Delivery through Transformational Presentations: Modeling the Persona of Steve Jobs. Communication Teacher, 26(2), 65–68.
Sharma, A., & Grant, D. (2011). Narrative, drama and charismatic leadership: The case of Apple’s Steve Jobs. Leadership, 7(1), 3–26.