CAREER COLUMN

What Hollywood can teach researchers about scientific storytelling

Josh Ettinger says that screenwriting classes and a stint as a TV production intern have boosted his science-communication skills.
Josh Ettinger is a PhD (DPhil) student in geography and the environment at the University of Oxford, UK.

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Woman's hand draws a storyboard for a film or cartoon.

Storyboarding techniques can be useful in science.Credit: Tutatama/Alamy

In 2012, I started working as a production intern for the satirical US television programme The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and then spent several years studying screenwriting in classes and workshops. I learnt at first hand the power of storytelling, not only for entertainment, but also for communicating science. Now, I tap into this experience all the time as a PhD student at the University of Oxford, UK.

Stories invite others along with us on our research experiences, making science more accessible and engaging to diverse audiences. ‘Tell a story’ is solid advice for scientists, but I sometimes feel that it doesn’t go far enough: in my opinion, scientists should learn from screenwriters, who are experts in crafting narratives. Storytelling commercially is a rigorous process, especially when millions of dollars are on the line. Ed Catmull, co-founder of the animation studio Pixar, explains in his book Creativity, Inc. (2014) that story development is like peer review; in a writers’ room, every plot, character and line of dialogue is dissected by a group of seasoned professionals. Here are some pieces of advice from my screenwriting experience that have also come in handy in my scientific career.

Open with a question

It is no accident that many films and shows open with a frenetic, action-packed scene that compels viewers to ask: “What’s going on here, who are these people and what do they want?” These scenes are designed to keep us watching. How is this relevant to science, which demands clarity?

One way of applying this strategy in a presentation is to start with a compelling hook, locking audiences in from the start. I recently attended a lecture by a scientist who explores climate history by analysing stalagmites. Towards the end of her talk, she showed a photo of herself rappelling through a cave to collect samples. The audience immediately perked up. Starting with that image, compelling us to ask why this scientist was crawling around in a dangerous cave, might have hooked the audience in more strongly from the beginning.

Whenever I give a talk or teach, I tend to open with a short anecdote to help set the stage and generate interest. In fact, I put this technique into practice in this very article by placing a strategic anecdote in the first line. However, this particular storytelling technique is perhaps most appropriate in presentations; research papers typically demand more straightforward reporting of results in the form of a clear abstract.

It’s all about the journey

When scientists describe their research to audiences outside their specialism, they often avoid discussing personal trials and tribulations. Instead, they focus only on positive, published results. No one wants to look like a failure, even if such experiences can be immensely valuable. But hiding the hardships might cut out some of your best story material. Consider Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ motif, described in his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which deeply inspired director George Lucas, television producer and writer Dan Harmon, and countless others. The hero’s journey — in which an individual embarks on a challenging, transformational experience — appears in myths and stories from cultures around the world, underscoring how audiences connect in profound ways with characters who struggle, learn and grow.

The research process lends itself perfectly to this narrative concept; it can be depicted as a winding road of plot twists that reshapes the lives of scientists and our understanding of the world. Invite others to join you for the ups and downs of your research. Instead of just presenting your findings, describe how you reacted to those discoveries. What was most exciting? What did you get wrong? Injecting vulnerability can make you and your science much more relatable. As Emma Coats, a former Pixar storyboard artist, noted in a list of storytelling principles she posted on Twitter: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”

Explain what’s at stake

One of the key questions that screenwriters ask themselves is “Why should my audience care?” When designing your next talk, preparing for an interview or describing your work to family and friends, ask yourself the same thing. It’s easy for scientists to get caught up in technical details but when it comes to public engagement, it’s important to explain why research is important in the first place. The ‘And, But, Therefore’ (ABT) framework, outlined by scientist-filmmaker Randy Olson in his book Houston, We Have a Narrative (2015), can be a useful tool for constructing a punchy, logical narrative rather than a recitation of fact, after fact, after fact.

You could also consider a screenwriting principle called ‘save the cat’, in which you give your audience specific characters to cheer for; this could include yourself, pursuing groundbreaking knowledge despite setbacks, or the potential beneficiaries of your research. For instance, a PhD student in my department researches climate-change litigation. He often tells the story of Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer who is suing a large German energy company because a melting glacier threatens his farm, livelihood and hometown. ‘Zooming in’ and telling the story of a sympathetic character at a local level helps audiences contextualize the larger problem and understand the relevance of the student’s work globally. Psychologists call this the ‘identifiable victim effect’. What’s more, as the entertainment industry continues to grapple with diversity challenges, it’s important to reflect on representation in your stories as well.

The next act

Pulling all these principles together can be challenging: there’s a reason why we’re not all screenwriters. Although writing scripts remains only my hobby for now, it is integral to my PhD. Beyond applying storytelling strategies in my own teaching and writing, as part of my research I am evaluating some of these narrative techniques as ways to engage the public about climate change. I also teach screenwriting strategies to students, researchers and communication professionals, in the hope that this will improve how the scientific community engages with broader society. After all, as the character Tyrion Lannister states in the television series Game of Thrones, “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01731-9

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