Last year Conservation Scientist Aerin Jacob with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative visited Memorial to give a talk to the Geography Department. While she was here, she offered a storytelling workshop to graduate students. Being a busy student, I nearly decided against attending, but only five minutes into the workshop I knew I had made the correct decision.
I’m a scientist. I’ve been trained to be objective, write, and present concisely with few adjectives, so communicating creatively and subjectively feels like something outside of my wheelhouse. But Aerin’s message really stuck with me.
Storytelling is a universal language that humans have been using to communicate for millennia. Stories have recognizable motifs that draw us in and hold our attention better than lists of facts or ideas. Our lives and careers are an assemblage of stories. We are influenced by the literature we consume, scientific and otherwise, and we all find our own voices and styles in crafting narratives. This got me thinking about just how important stories are for every aspect of being a successful graduate student.
This won’t be a step-by-step how to communicate using storytelling (there are far better resources available online – see the end of this post for a few of my favourites). I simply want to convince you that storytelling should be a common thread in almost everything you do as a grad student.
Here are some examples of stories I’ve worked on recently:
Publications: Short stories of science past
I have two papers published in peer reviewed journals. I’ve sent out three papers for review and I’ve received seven rejections (in fact I was rejected from the same journal three times). Aside from other technical issues that made these pieces of research initially unfit for publication (in hindsight I should have done more groundwork, especially during my master’s degree), the main issue cited by my reviewers was communication. ‘Confused and confusing…’ is one memorable quote that sticks in my mind.
Feedback like this can be hard to digest, but tact aside, there is at least a shred of truth to most reviewers’ comments. My papers were improved by making sure each section followed a typical narrative arc:
- The background: Review some of the foundational work in your field
- The conflict: There is a problem, and your work helps to solve it
- The climax: Present your findings
- The resolution: Place your findings into the context of other work in your field
Proposals: A tale of science to come
Whether you are applying for funding from NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR, or building relationships with governments or agencies, you will most likely need to sell your research at some point in your career. Just like a paper, your proposal needs to tell a story:
- The background: Set up the context and impact with previous work
- The conflict: The unsolved problem
- The climax: Since you don’t have the answers yet, communicate that your approach is both creative and feasible
- The resolution: You plan to produce ‘X’ outcome at ‘X’ date
Job applications: The story of you
Where you have been helps create your vision of where you’re going. Whether that’s within academia or outside of the ivory tower, your career will need a narrative. Just like academic writing, communicating your career as a narrative will help you navigate relationships with potential employers or colleagues you hope to collaborate with. This story will never be a finished one, so it’s important to keep building on it throughout your career. Here are some questions to reflect on:
- The characters: What skills have you developed in your time at grad school that made you who you are? Who did you learn them from?
- The conflict: What opportunities or challenges have you taken that set you apart from other candidates?
- The plot: What is the overarching theme that ties together the things you’ve worked on?
How do you get better at storytelling?
Like anything, practice makes (closer to) perfect. My lab holds a biweekly ‘writing group’ in which we exchange and review short pieces of writing. The MUN Writing Centre: (https://www.mun.ca/writingcentre/) also offers help with academic writing in a peer tutor format. You could even start blogging (or write for your grad student blog!).
Convincing a range of audiences that your research is interesting and useful is an essential skill. Practice by talking to high school students, presenting your research to funding agencies, talking to media, and talking to people in the communities in which you work. I’ve practiced communicating my research informally by attending local community fairs in my study area and inviting local people to join me for a day in the field.
There are different ways to tell the same story to different audiences. Presenting to your lab, department, and at conferences are all great opportunities to practice telling your stories to a scientific audience. We learn a lot by emulating others, and attending other talks or presentations exposes you to new ways to verbally and visually present your research. Thanks to a helpful tip from Aerin Jacob, I now try to identify the narrative in all presentations I see.
So, what’s your next story?
Aerin Jacob’s website:
http://www.aerinjacob.ca/ (see the SciComm link under Resources!)
A couple of my favourite posts about storytelling in science: