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Inspired to become a science storyteller

Kate Harline shares how the Speaking Science workshop inspired her to pursue science storytelling.

When I think of storytelling I usually picture an old woman gesturing wildly around a crackling fire, children’s eyes mystically holding onto her every word. I usually don’t think about a scientist standing in an AC-tundra hotel ballroom frantically pointing out figures with a green laser as fellow scientists’ eyes amble back and forth between the talk and their screens.

And above all, I definitely don’t think of myself as a storyteller.

The Speaking Science workshop hosted by the Cornell Alliance for Science taught me how wrong I might be. Maybe storytelling was exactly the strategy that scientists, specifically this scientist, needed to spread their message.

Kate Harline - Speaking Science
Speaking Science workshop. Photo provided by author.

The workshop began with two intense days of case studies of different science communication situations. The scenarios were nicely paced with lectures to give background information and best practices interspersed with hands on activities to practice what we had learned. All of the sessions were brought together by the concept of the message triangle. The message triangle is a technique we learned can help us as speakers stay focused on a message regardless of the scenario and its distractions. We learned how the three edges could be supporting evidence or answer specific questions surrounding a more important key message. As scientists it can be easy to want to unload knowledge all at once, but the message triangle helped me understand how to package my ideas into useful information for the public. My favorite sessions were concerned with using the message triangle to stay on message when talking to distracting journalists and preparing an elevator pitch. These sessions were paired with activities including filmed interviews with a mock journalist and a speed-dating style networking session with fellow workshop participants. I liked the filmed interview because it helped me hone in on effective language to use when communicating with nonscientists. The networking also helped me understand better how to concisely produce information on the fly.

The next two days were a total shift in focus to the Story Collider worksop. The Story Collider is a non-profit science storytelling platform that hosts shows across the country and has a weekly podcast. The goal of this section was to develop a more fleshed out and engaging “science story” in the style of Story Collider. The days were extremely intense and demanded a level of vulnerability we usually aren’t expected to express as scientists. It was equally refreshing and daunting!

One of my favorite exercises we did with the Story Collider facilitators was a group warm-up where we all stood in a circle and began to tell stories, but then would interrupt each other as soon as we could share a story of a similar topic. This was super fun as some of the story beginnings were so tantalizing that we wanted to keep listening, but we had to keep the exercise going. The exercise also opened me up to how much we all  have in common and our ability to be vulnerable and open with each other.

The rest of the workshop consisted of more introspective work and we were tasked with fully developing our own science story. In hindsight, I wish I had developed a more meaningful story instead of a sort of silly tale about recovering a giant coconut from a beach in Hawaii. Most other participants chose to take a personal route and demonstrated their commitment to or interest in science. I struggled to inject more meaning into a simple funny story and found myself rather embarrassed by the lack of profound insight or significance the event had for my life. I’m still so grateful to have met the staff, learn about the amazing organization they have created and listen to the interesting stories that everyone was able to share.

By the end of the two days we had a miniature performance in Story Collider style where a few brave souls presented their work. I was impressed by how much progress some of my fellow workshop participants made. I was overwhelmed by the palpable emotions they were able to elicit from their vulnerability and details they chose to share.  I definitely want to harness this kind of feeling in my science communication and general day-to-day interactions. My disappointments with my own story make me want to challenge myself to take my work and my interactions with people more seriously to develop meaningful conclusions rather than using humor as a gimmick.

Kate Harline - Speaking Science group
Speaking Science workshop attendees. Photo provided by author.

The last day was an interesting opportunity to wrap up the week and circle back to the strategies we learned in the first two days. We attended breakout sessions where we could create take-away projects. I chose the video production session because I like photography and am interested in the technical aspects of videography. I also hoped seeing myself on tape again would be helpful in working on my body language and posture. The session was only a few hours long, but again I was amazed at how much we covered! There were so many interesting tidbits that I had never considered as being important preparation for a video interview. We went into things as specific as the types of clothing that are best from a production standpoint and the best way to rephrase and answer questions as well as preparing in advance for potentially hardball situations.

By the end of the week I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of information I had just taken in. Looking back, I am so glad I chose to participate and hope to continue to grow in my science communication skills. I am so grateful to all of the people that came together to make this workshop possible and am actively pursuing ways to incorporate the experience into my daily interactions and long term career decisions.