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.