In my book I tried to offer specific suggestions on how to communicate science (and other technical topics) more effectively to broader audiences, starting with the titles of the four main chapters. In addition to the book I’ve tried at university visits and workshops to provide further suggestions and advice to people seeking to reach broader audiences with their scientific content. In this essay I’ll offer a little more of that.
FROM TELLING TO SHOWING THROUGH THE USE OF STORIES
The most important piece of advice in the book is the message of the third chapter — the recommendation that you try to tell good stories. You can work on this yourself, or you can seek the assistance of professionals. Right now I am personally in the middle of a textbook case of providing solicited assistance to a group who are wanting to make the transition from TELLING about what they do, to SHOWING what they do.
Three months ago a fellow from the business world contacted me. He runs decision-making workshops and was getting ready to shoot a 15 minute promotional video to help recruit companies as clients. He had written a 15 page script that consisted of him talking directly into the camera TELLING the viewer what the workshops do. But he had read the third chapter of my book, “Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller,” and thought to himself, “Hey, maybe this promotional video might work better if we develop a story that helps us SHOW what the workshops do, rather than tell.”
My first instinct with this project was to hire my script analysis friend Dorie Barton (more about her later) to help me develop a simple story and write the script. We did this and last week shot the 15 page script with 5 excellent actors. What we came up with is a simple story about a company where four of the executives are in a conference room and can’t even agree on where to order lunch from. A representative from the workshops joins them to make a pitch for the workshop. To help them decide whether they want to book a workshop, he runs them through a mini-version of the decision-making process that the workshops utilizes. Along the way, at five spots, there are sections where we cutaway to the actual experts who run the workshops as they explain the details on how a real workshop is conducted.
It will take a few months of post-production before the video is complete, but you get the general idea. THIS is how you utilize storytelling to bring a subject to life. It’s less literal than just having the man look into the camera and say, “This is how we do our workshops …” There might be some analytical types who would prefer to just see the man telling the facts and not have to bother with a story, but they are a small crowd and are not the types who have to be sold on the product. Storytelling is a technique for reaching the BROADER public.
It goes back to what screenwriter Margaret Nagle said in her Benshi interview — that the lame-o movie “The Day After Tomorrow” probably did more to alert people to the risks of climate change than the literal-minded Al Gore movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
HELPING SCIENCE GROUPS TELL BETTER STORIES
Twenty years ago, to tell scientists they should take an interest in the telling of stories would have sounded cockamamie. I was a starting professor then, and if someone had walked in my office and said, “Hey, I know these people in Hollywood who could be of use to you,” I would have guffawed. But times have definitely changed. As I mentioned in my book, LOTS of scientists and science organizations are now making their own videos. It’s increasingly easy to do — just shoot some footage on your cell phone camera, dump it onto a laptop with an editing program, and cut it together. EVERYONE can do it now for next to nothing. Which is fine. But the time has come for many such burgeoning filmmakers to move things to the next level — which is to have your short films actually tell stories. This is how you produce films that are of interest to more than just your specialized audience who will watch anything on your topic.
In February, I got a dose of the need for storytelling in films made by scientists when we held a unique workshop at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Oregon. We invited scientists and science programs to submit their own short videos, up to 5 minutes length, for me to present in a workshop where we would discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the videos and potential areas for revision.
We received about 20 videos, and presented 9 of them. Overall, there was one very clear pattern that emerged from all the videos — NONE of them told stories. They were all like the businessman looking directly into the camera, TELLING everything he wanted to communicate. Most of them were basically, “Here’s our laboratory, here’s our scientists, here’s our equipment, here’s our experiments, here’s our results, here’s our papers, won’t you come visit us sometime?” Which again is okay for the literal-minded types. But most of your visitors, for whom the video is intended, probably aren’t going to connect very well with such a dull presentation. Every one of the videos could have been reworked to tell a story of one sort or another.
SEEKING PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE FOR THE TELLING OF BETTER STORIES
So how do you go about “finding the story” in what you do? Well, one way is to seek the assistance of a professional. And towards that end let me now refer you to one such person. As I mentioned earlier, Dorie Barton is a friend whom I met about eight years ago here in Hollywood. She is an accomplished actress, but more importantly for our needs, is a very knowledgeable and savvy storyteller. She has the training and instincts to hear your literal-minded presentation and help you find a way to use storytelling to make it more engaging to a broader audience.
This is one of the services I’m hoping to provide to some folks in the science world — to help guide you to resources you wouldn’t normally encounter. Hollywood is a large, monolithic, often condescending and impenetrable fortress. Most people at a research institution wouldn’t have a clue of how to make use of anything Hollywood has to offer. But this is a case where you can actually visit Dorie’s website, “Development Girl,” and send her an email if you have a project you think she might be able to assist with. You have to eventually pay for her services, but you’ll see my testimonial on her website and I mean every word I wrote — she has helped me with several projects. As I say, she is a “closer.”
So if you maybe had a script you were writing for a fifteen minute video to tell about the research your laboratory or institution is involved with, you might want to consider the idea of sending Dorie an email and eventually having a chat with her. She is exactly the sort of person who can help you make the transition from a relatively dull factual presentation of your subject into something that can reach into the imagination and energy of the broader public. This is one of the ways we can hopefully help you be a tiny bit less of a scientist when it comes to reaching the general audience.