Storytelling is a pivotal element when familiarizing a broader public with any subject. But in science, more than in any other field, there are a few obstacles that should be avoided when weaving findings into a narrative. After all, we want to avoid misrepresentation of any kind. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using this extremely powerful way of sharing information.

If you have a background in journalism or communication, storytelling is in your DNA, so to speak. Among science communicators, however, the relationship with storytelling is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, no one would dispute that stories are crucial for learning, helping your audience integrate new facts into their existing body of knowledge or into their culture’s broader narratives.

On the other hand, to create a gripping story that is coherent and memorable, you know you’ll need to make some trade-offs, resorting to simplifications, short-cuts or overemphasizing connections. This applies to written text, presentations, visual illustrations, videos or audio formats, and it especially applies to social media, where the number of characters may be limited. It’s no surprise, then, that some researchers who also engage in science communication for a broader audience are sometimes wary of engaging storylines and gripping plots.

Having said that, we can all agree that storytelling is a basic cultural technique, right? And that researchers also use it when collaborating with colleagues and writing scientific papers? Utilizing storytelling techniques in science outreach will be safer (and fun!) if you stick to a few rules. I have compiled these during my work as a science communicator (dear fellow SciCommers, please let me know if I have left out anything important):

  • What is the goal of your science communication activity? For example, you may just want your audience to learn new things in a fun way and stay curious. Or you may want to change a public perception, or support a policy change. Or maybe you want to address peers. Make sure you have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve. Depending on your main goal, you will use a different tone and style as well as different techniques to tell your story.
  • Your audience might be more or less familiar with scientific concepts. Make sure you break complexity down to a degree that’s appropriate for your target audience. To avoid being misunderstood and misquoted, it might be necessary to clearly explain, for example, why a certain relationship is a correlation but not a causation. You also might have to discuss the research methods that have been applied and their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t treat this as a side note but make it part of your story.
  • If you use metaphors and comparisons, choose them carefully. It’s safer to use ones that are obviously unrelated to the topic you want to explain. One seemingly apt comparison that has been made frequently and that really upsets some neuroscientists is that the human brain works like a computer. But unfortunately, this metaphor leads to misconceptions.

In contrast, Philipp Dettmer, in his book on the human immune system1, provides plenty of thematically unrelated but illustrative examples. Nobody will think of cells, bacteria and viruses actually fighting with guns, dancing, kissing, and whispering magic words, yet these images will help an audience understand the concept of how our immune system works.

  • The use of social media for science communication has been both highly praised and sharply criticized. I am convinced that the opportunities outweigh the risks. And anyway, do we want to turn back the clock and undo the development of social media? We know from past inventions that would be in vain.

So instead, I recommend applying the golden rule: the shorter and more condensed a text is, the more careful you have to be about making sure a statement cannot be taken out of context. Address ambiguities and include references to further information, even if this takes up space. And yes, it’s a balancing act: using crisp and catchy phrases but not giving in to the temptation to include clickbait.2

  • Communication should never be a one-way street. Make sure you provide ways for your audience to address open issues and ask questions that will actually be answered. Dialogue is a core element of science communication, and achieving true dialogue is probably also the greatest challenge for any science communicator.
  • If you’re a communications expert, take sufficient time to become familiar with the material. And above all: Work closely with researchers to make sure you don’t lose sight of the big picture because of the beautiful, enticing metaphor or catchy headline that first comes to mind; it might not be fitting. If you’re a scientist engaging in science communication projects, it’s worth teaming up with communication experts. Good science communication is always a collaborative process.

None of these points will guarantee that parts of your story won’t be taken out of context, misinterpreted or even deliberately misrepresented. But chances are that many among the audience you’re targeting will accompany you on the journey of getting to the bottom of something fascinating.



1 “Immune: a Journey into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive”; Philipp Dettmer, Random House, November 2021

2 Of course, there’s also a darker side to this that you as an individual can’t really influence. So far, social media’s algorithms have further boosted any content that receives high attention. Sensationalistic content such as conspiracy narratives unfortunately gets more attention. In addition, people who have already fallen for such narratives tend to pay more attention to further similar content. Only policies that mitigate the spread of misinformation would have the power to break that vicious circle.