Hello From The Story Collider's New Artistic Director

The unassuming email below, from March 2011, changed my life probably more than any other email I’ve ever sent.

At the time, of course, I had no idea. My friend Ben Lillie, a physicist and performer, had asked me the night before if I might be interested in helping him out with his science storytelling project since his partner, Brian Wecht, another physicist and performer, was moving to Boston and starting up the show there. I don’t think I could have been more surprised if he’d asked me to don a lab coat and conduct an open-heart surgery on the spot. I was honored that he thought I was capable, but I felt overwhelmingly unqualified. After all, unlike Ben and Brian, I was not a particle physicist. Not even close. The only science class I’d taken in college had been a course titled Plant Biology 101: Plants and People. Not exactly string theory.

“You know I don’t know anything about science, right?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” Ben said enthusiastically. “That’s why we chose you.”

Unsure whether to be flattered or offended, I went home and told my boyfriend, now husband, all my concerns. He listened carefully and then said, “Well, but you’re obviously going to do it, right?” And he was right. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. So the next morning I sent this email.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what “looked rad,” it was this postcard that Ben had created to promote the show in 2011.

I still think it looks rad. Especially the badass chick in the top left.

That was five years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten so much more than I ever bargained for. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work full-time producing these incredible shows. I’ve been fortunate to have so many storytellers share a piece of themselves with me, and our audience. I carry many of these stories with me every day. Many of them have challenged my assumptions and taught me more than I ever thought possible--sometimes even about science. For example, do you know what happens when sea urchins get cold?  Do you know how to solve a murder using the striations on a garbage bag? What a mucus plug is? The terrible things a guinea worm can do to the human body? This is all awesome and terrifying knowledge that I now have--for better or worse, in terms of my nightmares.

But even more significantly, I’ve Iearned about the lives of other people, scientists and civilians, and the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, their ability to find humor and grace in the worst of circumstances. Listening to the hundreds of storytellers I have worked with over the course of the past five years, I can’t help but be humbled by the honesty and vulnerability and generosity of our storytellers.

And I was humbled further, this week, when The Story Collider’s board voted to approve my promotion to artistic director.

As artistic director, I hope to carry on the legacy of my friend Ben, our co-founder and previous artistic director, as he transitions to a role on our board and directing special projects. Six years ago, Ben and Brian started something that now has a life of its own. I couldn’t be more proud of where we’ve ended up today.

I’m so excited to be leading such an amazing team of producers, and to be working alongside our fantastic executive director, Liz Neeley. And I’m even more excited to continue to hear your stories, to help shape them and be shaped by them.

Thank you, Story Collider community, for a great five years. Here’s to five more.

-- Erin Barker, artistic director of The Story Collider

 

Story Notes #3: Use Just Enough Science

(This is part of a series of the most common notes we give on Story Collider stories. They may or may not be useful elsewhere. This one is a guest post by Story Collider senior producer Erin Barker.)

How much science should I include in my story? (Scientists Edition)

One of the biggest challenges The Story Collider faces when working with scientist storytellers is how to blend complex science into a compelling narrative that everyone can understand and appreciate.  I will admit up front that I have not always had the best ideas in this area.  I once asked a neuroscientist to explain his work at a fifth-grade reading level. Suffice to say, I regret this, and will never do so again.

It occurred to me after this conversation that maybe the key isn’t to treat the audience like ten-year-olds. After all, they aren’t dumb — they just aren’t all scientists. They may be experts in other things like tax law or real estate or cake baking or karate chopping, or other important or complex subject areas. They can be perfectly intelligent people who don’t want to be talked down to, just because they don’t happen to have a decade-plus of foundational knowledge in any given scientific field. There must be a better way to communicate with them than by condescending.

Maybe the key instead is to be concise, I thought. By limiting the amount of scientific explanation you include in your story, you could avoid overwhelming the audience without treating them like dummies. A great example of this is a Story Collider story by cognitive neuroscientist David Carmel. In this story (which, naturally, I highly recommend listening to), David struggles with his fascination when his own father suffers a stroke that leaves him believing that the arrangement of his limbs is out of order. (“The bottom two-thirds of my body are gone,” he tells David at one point.) David’s explanation of what’s taking place in his father’s brain, and why it’s so unusual, is succinct — no more than a few lines — and it lasts only about thirty seconds:

There is a representation of the body in the brain. It’s called the homunculus. There are actually several homunculi. There’s one for the sense of touch. There’s one for motion. There’s one for proprioception, the sense of where your limbs are at any given time, so that you can balance properly. And the homunculus is plastic, meaning it can change over time, through experience. For example, the representation of the fingers is larger in pianists. But I’ve never heard of a complete remapping, a complete rearrangement, of the body representation after a stroke.

I’m sure that David, being a cognitive neuroscientist, could have waxed lyrical about what was going on his dad’s brain for hours. But because he kept it to only a few lines — and used really only one or two pieces of jargon — it becomes much easier to digest, and in fact, much more memorable. I have remembered the term homunculus and what it means ever since I first heard this story over two years ago, which is longer than I remembered the names of half of the people I’ve dated.

Sadly, David and I are not the first geniuses to consider this. In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, science communicator and filmmaker Randy Olson also advises concision.

“Dumbing down” refers to the assumption that your audience is too stupid to understand your topic. So you water down all the information or just remove it, producing a vacuous and uninteresting version of what in reality is complex and fascinating. “Concision” is completely different. It means conveying a great deal of information using the fewest possible steps or words or images or whatever the mode of communication is. The former results in a dull, shallow presentation; the latter is a thing of beauty that can project infinite complexity.

After listening to David’s story, who can argue?

So what can you do to be more concise? Start small. If you could teach someone just one thing about your work, what would it be? What are the facts we absolutely need to know in order to appreciate your story and the stakes at hand? Each time you are including complex scientific information, ask yourself: Does this advance the plot? Does the audience need to know this in order to follow the events taking place? If the answer is no, it’s likely that your story is better off without it.

You may feel naked without it. Suffocating detail can be like a warm, comforting blanket to scientists. It means you have covered all your bases and left no stone unturned – understandable instincts for someone in your line of work. But when it comes to storytelling, if that detail comes at the cost of losing the audience’s attention or overwhelming them, what is it really worth?

Erin Barker is a producer of science storytelling project The Story Collider and a host of its live show in New York. She is a winner of The Moth’s GrandSLAM competition and has appeared in its Mainstage and On the Road shows, as well as on its Peabody Award-winning show on PRX, The Moth Radio Hour.

Story Notes #2: Begin in the Middle

Scientists, whether telling stories or lecturing can learn a tremendous amount from Andy Christie’s famous opening line, “I’m about 5000 feet above Albany on this perfect, beautiful, cloudless day when the girl who just pushed me out of the airplane starts screaming, ‘Wait, wait, your chute!’”

That is my all-time favorite beginning of a story. He gives the absolutely barest minimum to create the right image, and then puts us directly into the most interesting part of the story. Now clearly not every story should begin in the middle of a dramatic action like that — that would get repetitive quite fast — but the principle is quite good. This rule* goes by a lot of names. At The Moth they like to say, “start in the action.” We tend to say, “don’t over-introduce” or “jump right into the story.”

There are actually two components to it. The first is to not spend too much time in the lead-up. Don’t tell us your whole life story, just the part we need to understand what follows. Our format is one that depends on the plot moving forward, and it can’t move forward until it’s started.

The second is what makes this the #2 most common note we give on Story Collider stories. There’s a piece of advice that used to be pervasive in advice about science communication:

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re telling them, then tell them what you told them.”

I literally learned this at my dad’s knee. When I was going in middle and high school in the 90s he was an associate professor cutting his teeth on public lectures. He would repeat that refrain every time I needed to present something in class. At the time it was state-of-the-art, and I probably did quite well — and I know he did. But he’s moved past it, as (thankfully) has most of the field.**

The problem is that it’s completely antithetical to all the principles of narrative and drama. Those evolved, in part, to hold an audience’s attention and keep them interested, and more importantly to deliver an experience in a satisfying way. One of those principles is that a plot needs surprise, it needs the unexpected. “Predictable” is one of the strongest insult you throw at a movie. A really easy way to be predicable is to tell people at the top what the whole plot is.

Now, this isn’t just a problem for scientists. David Crabb, one of my favorite storytellers and also an excellent teacher, recently tweeted “Don’t tell me what you’re about to tell me. Just tell me.”

But it is a very common problem. Resist the urge to let us know where you’re going. Instead, let the story unfold. Jump into the action and let us experience it as you did. It’ll be stronger, and we’ll remember it.

*As always with writing advice, that’s “rule.” The point is that if you break it, know why.

**Super-fun fact: Googling that phrase brings up lots of results like, “How to Tell Someone You Won’t Go to Prom with Them: 5 Steps.” Step 1, “Make sure that you don’t want to go to prom with this person.”

Story Notes #1: End at the End

When your story is over, stop.

Or, as Lewis Carroll put it, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

When people get to the end of their story, there’s a common impulse to say more – to explain what it means, to meditate on the success or failures, or to make clear the point that the story was trying to get across.

Resist that impulse. Resist it with everything you have.

This is far and away the most common note we give after seeing a first draft. Particularly in a stage show* the tension of “what will happen next?” is what drives the action forward. Once the story is over the audience tends to check out. They action is done, they can relax. Anything after that point feels like filler.

“The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it. The thing that had kept Joan going, the thing that had helped guid her hand at the last moment, was her faith in herself, despite all the doubters.”

At the end there is a moment, once chance that you have as a storyteller to hit the audience with everything you’ve put into the story. Done right, that moment is crystalized in the mind of everyone who saw it. That’s drained if you then take some time to explain what it was all about. After everyone is sure how it ends they’ll lean back in their chairs and whisper comments to their friends and you’ve lost them. 

The flip side of that is that if you keep some suspense you can actually get quite a bit of material in.

“The dragon took a deep breath, and Joan flashed back to all the doubters – how they had questioned her and mocked her and told her she was girl and could never kill a dragon. And she realized she didn’t care. She had never cared. That was true strength – not caring no matter what people said. And threw her sword with one strong motion, struck the dragon through the neck and killed it.”

Better, right? Now, don’t abuse that. You can’t keep the suspense up for a long dissertation, but you can get some really good stuff in there.

The best way, though, is to let the story carry the message on it’s own. To trust the audience to get the point:

“<lots of great stuff showing doubters and mocking and they stole her lunch and we see her hurt by it and then start to ignore it and then the dragon comes and kills lots of people then…>. The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it.”

It’s fascinating how people’s desire to find the lesson can…. Oh… wait, shit.

*(I’m not an expert on written narrative nonfiction, so maybe it can work there – although Evan Ratliff and David Dobbs, among others, dont think so.)

Story Collider’s Staff Picks for 2015

At The Story Collider, we believe everyone has a story about science — a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We’ve spent the past five and a half years finding those stories in cities that range from London to San Francisco, and sharing them in our live shows and on our podcast. This year, we’ve heard a variety of stories — from bacon sandwiches to exoplanets to the elusive brontosaurus — that have excited us, moved us, and ultimately changed us, both as producers and as people. To highlight a few of these, we’ve asked each member of staff to choose one story from the podcast this year that particularly affected them and share a few words about it here. Happy listening!

My Prosthetic
By Chris Gunter

I confess — I’m a crier. There are so many Story Collider stories that have made me cry, even when I have already heard them before, multiple times, in rehearsal. A large percentage of those tears are a result of our annual show at the Atlanta Science Festival. I always love going down to Atlanta every year because the stories we find there are so special. They open me up to experiences far different from my own. They’re intimate and powerful andquietly poignant (stop me if I’m going on too much…). Chris Gunter’s story was no exception. For those of you who don’t know Chris, she’s a geneticist and a delightful human being who also suffers from a rare genetic condition that causes her not to grow any hair. Because of this, she’s worn a wig from a young age and also unfortunately endured many painful situations that left her fearful of passing on the disorder to her son. In her story, she attacks this problem as both a mother and a geneticist, and the result is beautiful. Chris is so genuine in her story, so honest and vulnerable, that you can’t help but fall in love with her and her son, and their wonderful relationship. Plus, she also gets in a shot on Cleveland (Ari Daniel’s hometown), and I’m always up for that. Just watch out for this ending… I’m still crying listening to it now.

— Erin Barker, senior producer

Jon Ronson vs. Jon_Ronson
By Jon Ronson

Though I love all of our stories, I’m particularly drawn to the ones about social science. (I find the humans endlessly fascinating.) Listeners of This American Life will immediately recognize Jon Ronson’s dry humor and signature accent; I’ve been a fan for years. I was lucky enough to see this story live (you can hear me laughing in the background multiple times) and was hooked from the opening, having “accidentally” typed my name into Google before too. This is a story about crafting identities, stealing identities, and confronting the dark side of technological advances (thinkBlack Mirror). It’s Ronson’s humorous exploration of whether, as one character in the story puts it, “the Internet is the real world.”

— Christine Gentry, Boston host and producer

Becoming American
By Teppei Katori

Not only is “Becoming American,” by Teppei Katori, wonderful (and charmingly told), but also working on it with Teppei was a really memorable experience. Teppei and I met a couple years ago when we were both physicists at Queen Mary University of London, and I immediately thought he’d be a great storyteller — he’s naturally hilarious, and his ebullient personality envelops every room he’s in. Every now and then I’d mention it to him, and he’d always gently say that he didn’t think he was ready to get on stage. Finally, after several attempts, I cornered Teppei in his office and essentially refused to leave until he agreed to tell a story.* We worked on the story together for about a month, and by the time the show rolled around, I was certain that his story of how a quiet introvert from Japan became a gregarious, extroverted American would stand out. It did. And, because I was just about to move back to the U.S. after several years spent in the U.K., Teppei’s story had me reflecting on my own American-ness, and the lessons I learned while living abroad. From now on, when I reflect on my time in London and the Story Collider shows I produced while living there, “Becoming American” will always be the story I think of first.

*Note to potential storytellers: this kind of strong-arm tactic is a highly atypical method of recruiting Story Collider performers.

— Brian Wecht, co-founder and former London producer, now L.A. producer

Lessons From the Man With a Machine Gun
By Aerin Jacob

The first thing I remember wanting to be is a field biologist. When I was ten, my parents got me Jane Goodall’s autobiography. The book starts with a scene of Goodall crouched in a chicken coop to watch an egg hatch. I didn’t have a chicken coop, but I did have a big rock near my house so I laid in the mud for a while, waiting for… something to happen. Nothing did, of course, until I got home covered in slime to find freaked-out parents who had no idea where I had gone. This is all to say that stories of field biology are very dear to me, particularly ones in which things don’t go quite as planned. And Aerin Jacob’s story of her trip out into the Serengeti looking for a cheetah is just that. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that the trip doesn’t go as planned. There is a lot of mud and a man with a machine gun involved. And Aerin tells the story with humor and grace and that kind of humility you want out of a storyteller. At the end, she passes on some valuable lessons to us, but they never feel preachy or cheesy. Bonus: a surprise visit from a hyena.

— Rose Eveleth, podcast editor

I Could Be an Astronaut
By Karen James

Like most marine biologists, as a child I had an equal chance of being compelled to follow my dreams to the stars like Jodie Foster in Contact, or follow my dreams to the bottom of the ocean like Sylvia Earle, Leonardo DiCaprio, and James Cameron. I chose the latter. Very few marine scientists get to experience both dreams in their lifetime. Karen James, a marine scientist, tells a compelling tale of a friendship she develops with an astronaut. It begins when she receives a weird email entitled “comm request” from an address that ended in NASA.gov, and she thinks, You don’t delete that. While the details of her story are naturally exciting because it involves spaceships, her reactions, passion, and humor during her performance are really the highlights of this recording. I don’t want to spoil anything more, but you should take a listen to Karen explaining what astronauts are really like and what it’s like rediscovering a lost passion within herself.

— Skylar Bayer, Maine producer

Whose Story Is It?
By David Moinina Sengeh

Raindrops, not gunshots. Childhood experiences in Sierra Leone inspired David Moinina Sengeh to pursue his research on prosthetic limbs. But rather than the narrative of tragedy and bloodshed you might expect, his science story began on soccer fields in the pouring rain. David’s research is utterly fascinating — but his personal origin story is what I remember most. I played David’s episode in my very first public lecture about The Story Collider. Standing in front of a packed room at Colorado State University, when David’s voice boomed over the speakers, “This is MY story and I will tell it,” I got goose bumps. I am so proud to be a part of sharing these stories with the world. At The Story Collider, we believe everyone has an amazing story. It’s yours to tell. Tell it well.

— Liz Neeley, executive director

Brontosaurus Claus
By Carter Edwards

I love so much about this story. I love how wide-ranging it is. It’s about dinosaurs, but also family, and American history, and growing up, and what it means to be a human being living in a world where we are constantly learning, constantly updating our knowledge. I love how authentic it is. I know Carter, I’ve known him since college, when he was called Bagel, and this his how he talks and thinks. He’ll randomly launch into a rant like this while we’re sitting around drinking or walking down the street. This is his voice — the voice of someone who is just fucking excited to be alive (and I love the swearing, because it’s right for him and the story). I also love how crafted it is. I love how it builds, how it starts low and, piece by piece, Carter adds to it until it hits crescendo after crescendo, how it twists and turns and never seems to settle down. I love how the conclusion itself is deeply uncertain. More and more, I find myself drawn to stories of uncertainty and ambiguity, and thinking about just how hard they are to tell. This is a spectacular example of how that can be done.

— Ben Lillie, co-founder and artistic director

The First Day of Class
By John Dimandja

I met John Dimandja while interviewing him for an audio series about chemistry called Small Matters. When I arrived at Spelman College, where he worked, he was warm, welcoming, and very smart. We talked about his science — he’s a world expert on a technique called 2D gas chromatography that pulls chemical mixtures apart into their constituent parts. And we also talked about what it’s like to be a black scientist. John explained the times when it’s been more challenging for him than for his white colleagues and mentioned, in passing, a story about being a teaching assistant for a chemistry course when he was a graduate student. John said that he could tell the undergraduates weren’t used to having a black instructor, but he soon won them over with his knowledge of chemistry. When Story Collider was invited to Atlanta a few months after that interview, I asked John if he would be willing to elaborate on this story and share it with our audience. He agreed, and he worked to develop his story into one that uses that experience in the classroom as a springboard to talk about the intersection of race and science. It’s a glimpse into who John is as a chemist and as a human being. The topic of race is a delicate one, and the audience was rapt as John talked about his experiences. I was touched by his courage to share this moment publicly, and to provide a stunning example of how — even when it might be easier to choose separation — we can find ways to connect.

— Ari Daniel, Boston producer