Annual Meeting 2023

Scientists Are Unique Storytellers and Translators

Edith Pfister, PhD - June 09, 2023

Read Dr. Pfister's recap of Storytelling as a Scientist, the Communications Committee's symposium at the 26th Annual Meeting.

Scientists have interesting stories to tell—stories that are important not just to other scientists but to a broader audience. We must reach patients, doctors, and the public to reassure and educate. However, we’ve lost our sense of narrative structure and often fail to tell compelling stories. To solve this problem, we must look to the humanities, particularly to people whose livelihoods depend on telling (and selling) stories.

Relatively few scientists realize when they are starting out that science revolves around communication. We often think that the data will sell itself. Yet, science is filled with stories. When we write papers, we ask, “What is the story we want to tell?” Clearly, we think about the what, but how much do we think about the how? The Storytelling as a Scientist session focuses on the how; how can we structure our stories and adapt them for different audiences and different mediums?

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Storytelling as a Scientist

Part I: We Are All Storytellers

Randy Olson is a scientist-turned-filmmaker and author. In his first book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, he tries to address the communication gap in science. However, that first book was criticized for not offering a solution. In Houston, We Have a Narrative (a book all scientists should read, along with Writing Science In Plain English by Anne E. Greene), he suggests a solution based on Hollywood storytelling. Hollywood, he argues, has storytelling (or more specifically, narrative) down; they have to because that’s what they do, and if they don’t do it well, then they’re out of a job.

Anyone who has worked in a lab knows that life revolves around tension and resolution. Will this experiment work? Will it show what I expect, or will it force me to change my mind, to think about things in a new way? It can be tedious or frustrating, exciting or disappointing. Tension and resolution also happen to be what make a compelling story. When it comes time to report our results, however, tension and resolution often get lost. So, how do we restore this dynamic? Olson has a template. He calls it the And, But, Therefore (ABT) method. Go back to the first paragraph I wrote; I tried to follow this template. We have stories AND we need to communicate them, BUT (however) we aren’t conveying them effectively, THEREFORE, we need to learn from people who tell stories for a living. If we apply this template, Olson argues, we can build more compelling stories to reach a wider audience (or get published in more high-profile journals!)


Show Answer
Part II: We Are All Translators

Last year at the Annual Meeting, Jennifer Adair, PhD, gave a beautiful talk. She started out by dissecting the title the Communications Committee had suggested for her, which was something like, “How to talk about gene therapy to a lay audience.” Although there were other changes she made, the one I remember was changing “a lay audience” to “people.” The reasoning, if I recall correctly, was that the original title divided people into us and them. The most effective communication, and the least resistance, happens when we can relate to each other. On the most fundamental level, we relate to each other through a common language. Semih Tareen, PhD, (aka @virusfantom) is a scientist and YouTuber who produces educational videos about viral gene therapy, primarily in Turkish. On one level, he translates information from English to Turkish, but he also translates from what can be a dry scientific idiom (but doesn’t have to be!) to a more colloquial language.

Explaining gene therapy to other audiences (which might include patients or physicians) boils down to a few key principles. First, you have to understand your audience’s concerns. Patients can be afraid of gene therapy because they are afraid their genes will be altered, that gene therapy is irreversible, and that it uses viruses, which most people know only in the context of things that make people sick. Second, when addressing these concerns, eliminate language that is alienating or that only people in the field will know. For example, in literature designed for physicians, viral vectors were described as “genetically modified, replication-incompetent self-inactivating viral vectors.” These are terms that are familiar to people who work in gene therapy but may not be to a wider audience. Explaining that the viral vectors are a “dead end” and that they can deliver a gene but can’t reproduce or infect other people will be more effective.

To address patients' concerns about gene therapy, Tareen suggests focusing on key points, (1) viruses are everywhere, and most of them don’t even make people sick, and (2) viral vectors are designed to contain only the “essential bits.” They can’t replicate or infect other people; this is ensured by extensive safety testing. He tells people that much of the human genome is composed of virus-like elements and that we rely on some of these virus-like elements for our own reproduction. Finally, we have to consider the risk/benefit ratio. With new designs and safety testing, the benefit to patients with serious diseases likely outweighs the risk.

While what we say and how we say it is important, how we present ourselves can also make communication easier. “I intentionally am a little over the top in my imagery,” Dr. Tareen says, “and part of that is to break down this hierarchy, this barrier between people who are trying to learn something and the scientific facts.” He shows a picture of himself in a shirt emblazoned with the name of a metal band, “I’m a huge metalhead. I dress like that to work every day. I do that because I think that image is important.”

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Part III: We All Have a Unique Voice

While Dr. Tareen uses YouTube as his media of choice, Nicole Paulk, PhD, is a well-known presence on Twitter and LinkedIn. Different platforms are more suited to different types of communication. YouTube is great for disseminating information to a wider audience, but Twitter can be an amazing resource for keeping up with literature and connecting with colleagues. LinkedIn is more formal and allows longer posts, although when you scroll, you only see the first part of the post. To read the full post, you need to click a link. To make your post more popular, you should make sure that the part of the post that is visible is engaging and contains your key points. Choose two platforms that are suited to your message where your audience will be. Twitter and LinkedIn are primarily text mediums, but if you have a lot of images that you want to share, you might want to use Instagram. Two is a good number, but you could do more depending on the amount of time and the frequency of posting they require.

Twitter is a high-volume medium. While each tweet is short and requires minimal effort (sometimes the hard part is reducing a thought to fit the character limit), Twitter moves so fast that it requires consistent attention. A tweet that gets little immediate engagement is unlikely to get later attention. Communications experts I’ve consulted with have recommended one to five tweets per day. In contrast, slower platforms require more work for individual posts but lower posting frequency.

LinkedIn is non-negotiable, Paulk says, and in my experience, getting started on LinkedIn is easy. You already have a built-in network of professional contacts that they can leverage to get started. There are two modes of connection on LinkedIn, you can “Connect” with people or “Follow” them. Connections are two-way, whereas following someone lets you see their posts, but the connection is not mutual. By default, only the connect button appears on your profile, this is great for building your network, but in my experience, unless they know you in person, people who view your profile are less likely to ask you to connect. You can change the default action on your profile from “Connect” to “Follow.” You can see your followers from your profile page and invite them to connect if you want to. I’ve also found that followers often self-convert to connections. Presumably, if they find your content useful, they will decide to connect.

Getting started on Twitter can be intimidating. In addition, it can be frustrating at first when you don’t have followers. Paulk acknowledges that it will be slow going at first, but she has some valuable advice.

  1. Choose a professional name (an easy way to do this is just to use your own name. That way, you will be recognizable to people in your own field.

  2. Pick at most two hashtags that describe your focus and use them on every post. Choose a combination that is not already dominated by users with many followers.

  3.  Link your accounts together.

  4. Follow people you admire who communicate well on Twitter and use them as a guide.

  5. You may be uncomfortable at first writing your own tweets. Interact with other people, share their tweets, add your own comments!

  6. Make it a fun place! Hype your friends! Build each other up! Finally,

  7. As Dr. Tareen said, be genuine and be yourself!

Show Answer

Dr. Pfister is an assistant professor at UMass Chan Medical School and a former chair of the Communications Committee.

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