Friday, November 16, 2018

Let's Write More Engaging Stories, by Don Orth

When students ask for my advice or tips for success, I provide a long list of technical skills and certifications that will help them stand out in the crowd of young scientists – scientific diving, electrofishing, safe boating, engine repair, OSHA, R, Illustrator, JAGS, Python, microscopy, and sensor calibration. “These things will look great on your C.V.” I tell them. But no matter your specialty, we all will need superb communication skills, a network, and relationships to make sure you realize your dream.  Here I highlight some favorite ideas for communicating science and nurturing a network. When Voltaire penned “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” he may have been speaking to why we are inhibited from writing for a public audience.   Building communication skills requires many attempts to communicate and frequent reactions, such as “What do you mean?”

In the Department of Fish and Wildlife Communication, we have long required graduate students to translate their thesis findings to a form for a non-scientific audience. My first graduate students shared aspects of their studies in Virginia Wildlife (Leonard and Orth 1985; Graham and Orth 1986; Austen and Orth 1988).

Scientists in fisheries management and conservation sciences must be capable of communicating with non-scientists. Our poor communications training is a long-standing issue and affects many professions.  Physician and author, Michael Crichton, authored an article in 1975 entitled “Medical Obfuscation: Structure and Function” in The New England Journal of Medicine.  In this article he lamented the impenetrable writing skills of most physicians.  

Start with your message, develop convincing prose, and adapt it to your specific audience.  Many resources are available to assist you.  Begin with the Compass website. The message box is a simple tool to help you distill your message.  Like others, I tend to write too many details when communicating with a non-scientific audience.  If I am empathetic to their needs, I must make meaning in the fewest and simplest words possible.   

Randy Olson, author of Houston We Have a Narrative, provided a template for creating engaging stories.  The acronym, ABT, reminds one that "AND" sets up the background, "BUT" identifies the problem and conflict, and "THEREFORE" describes one solution to the conflict.  Listen to sciencecommunicator, Tullio Rossi, explain how to turn your science into a captivating story.

Comic designed to contrast the typical science presentation with a more engaging story that uses the And, But, Therefore template.

Consider these simple steps for making your message more shareworthy (from Moore and Orth 2018).

·      Trust your story and adapt the ABT framework.
·      Avoid getting sidetracked by unnecessary details. Place difficult to understand concepts in terms the audience understands with analogies.
·      Relay the human element of the story that includes your emotions and the sensory details that can help the reader engage.
·      Be self-deprecating and find the humor in your mistakes. Your audience is more likely to see you as relatable and trustworthy, rather than depressing and whiny.
·      Use a variety of media. Alternatives to journal impact factors for gauging research influence now account for the power of social media to communicate science with services, such as Plum Analytics and Altmetrics.
·      Bolster your stories with photos, music, video, or art. Turn it into a children’s picture book.
·      Take advantage of free or inexpensive platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, blogging platforms, and YouTube.

Contrasting presentations for scientific and public audiences.
At a recent plenary talk at the AFS  meeting in Atlantic City, Dr. Christine O’Connell (Alan Alda Center, Stony Brook University) emphasize three messages for making your voice matter and making your science count.    

Takeaway 1. SHIFT YOUR FOCUS: It’s not about you, the listener must catch the message. Pay attention to your audience
Takeaway 2. FOSTER EMPATHY: We must deal with the curse of knowledge and avoid jargon.
Takeaway 3. TELL A STORY:   Stress the meaning and not the details in a way that makes the listener care.  

There are many stories we need to tell and our pre-occupation with statistical significance often stifles our creative storytelling.  Ditching the jargon is a most common recommendation from experienced science communicators (Helmuth 2012; AGU 2018; Merkle 2018; Quinlan 2018).

You should share the lessons learned from the non-significant findings of your investigations (adapted from Moore and Orth 2018).
It’s never too early to begin teaching basics of communication, whether in elementary middle or high school or college.   It takes practice and instructors should dispense with multiple choice exams and require authentic forms of communication.  Students needs guided practice with video, photography, sound, text and social media for messaging across multiple platforms.  I have converted some essays in exams to infographics or digital video essays.   Adolescents today spend more time composing unique genre restricted to 280 characters on Twitter via their mobile phones (2017).  My students write blog posts in addition to scientific articles, for example, check out Chesapeakecatfish, ClinchChronicles, VT Ichthyology, and The Troutlook.  Saunders et al. (2017) suggest that blogging can have broad benefits in developing professional networks, collaborations, and sharing the essential scientific papers.  

Storytelling is sometimes great for conveying your less successful moments as a scientist.  Lessons learned from mistakes are popular ways to engage non-scientists in the nitty-gritty aspects of our work.  Consider, for example, the success of Jim Jourdane’s Fieldwork Fail: The Messy Side of Science! So write more, and when you do make your writing more engaging.


American Geophysical Union (AGU). 2018. Jargon and how to avoid it.  Accessed November 16, 2018 from

Austen, D. J., and D. J. Orth.  1988.  Sampling of waters with electricity.  Virginia Wildlife 49(4):24-27.

Crichton, M. 1975.  Medication obfuscation:  structure and function.  The New England Journal of Medicine 293:1257-1259.  Accessed November 16, 2018 from

Graham, R. J., and D. J. Orth.  1986.  Living in the danger zone.  How do smallmouth bass survive?  Virginia Wildlife 47(4):22-25.

Helmuth, L.  2012.  Pitching Errors: How Not to Pitch. The Open Notebook.  Accessed November 16, 2018 from

Leonard, P. M., and D. J. Orth.  1985.  Are your streams healthy?  Ask the fish!  Virginia Wildlife 46(4):14-17.

Quinlan, C. 2018. Ditch the Jargon, Change the World? Science 37 Trial Mix website.  Accessed November 16, 2018 from

Merkle, B. G. 2018 Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists.  Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 99(4):e01430.

Moore, M.J., and D.J. Orth. 2018. Stories worth sharing.  Fisheries.  

Saunders, M.E., M. A. Duffy, S. B. Heard, M. Kosmala, S. R. Leather, T. P. McGlynn, J. Ollerton, A. L. Parachnowitsch. 2017. Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs. Royal Society Open Science   4: 170957.

Warner, J. 2017. Adolescents’ New Literacies with and through Mobile Phones. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers. New York. 198 pp.