Take Our Listener Survey!

Hello, science story lovers! 

We need your help to improve our podcast in 2017! If you get a chance this week, please take our brief listener survey and let us know what you think -- what kind of stories you'd like to hear more of, what kind of features we could add to the podcast, etc. We're so excited to continue bringing you science stories in the coming year, and I, for one, have a feeling that true, personal stories are now more important than ever. Click the button below to begin the survey.

Of course, one of The Story Collider's primary goals is to bring science stories to as many diverse audiences as possible, and we want to be sure that as we grow we're continuing to reach out to all audiences and demographics. For this reason, at the end of the survey, there are a few questions related to demographics. The results of this survey are anonymous and confidential, but please feel free to leave blank any questions you're not comfortable answering.

Thank you again for taking the time to contribute to The Story Collider!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

Saying Goodbye to Our Podcast Editor & Welcoming Another

Rose, reaching for the stars on the Story Collider stage in Brooklyn.

Rose, reaching for the stars on the Story Collider stage in Brooklyn.

The Story Collider is saying goodbye to our beloved podcast editor, Rose Eveleth, this month as she embarks on an exciting new opportunity producing the podcast based on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series

Those of you who know Rose will probably understand what she’s meant to The Story Collider over the years. She’s been an excellent podcast editor, but even more than that, she’s challenged us and inspired us to be better at every step along the way.

Do yourself a favor and check out not only her upcoming work at 30 for 30, but her amazing podcast Flash Forward -- which, each episode, explores a new possible future scenario. I'm told it will continue on a monthly basis while she tackles this new project at ESPN. Below, you can listen to the one time we managed to drag her out from behind the scenes at Story Collider -- a charming story of learning to ask for help. It's safe to say that everyone at SC will miss Rose's influence, her guidance, and her pathological love of foxes.

Luckily, we’re welcoming a new podcast editor -- Zoë Saunders. Zoë is currently an intern for our good friends at public radio’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen and has a master’s degree in archaeology. She says she's excited to be joining the Story Collider team (she did! I swear!), and we're excited to be welcoming her to the team!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director


In Recent Podcasts: Drunk Driving and Niagara Falls

Here at Story Collider, we're busy preparing for our fall slate of shows -- which includes trips to DC, San Francisco, New Orleans, and more! -- and I'm just catching up here on some of our recent podcasts today. Two amazing recent storytellers from our podcast? Comedian Wyatt Cenac and Science Friday's Ira Flatow.

Wyatt Cenac: Drunk Driving for Science

You may recognize Wyatt from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, or from his new show on TBS, People of Earth, about a support group for alien abductees (which, I have to say, looks great), or from his recent standup comedy special, Furry Dumb Fighter. We were lucky enough to have him in our May show that we produced in partnership with public radio’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. (You can still watch the whole show here!)

Wyatt shared a hilarious story about completing his high school community hours at a science center--”This was a place of science. I knew this because it was called The Science Place,” he says. At The Science Place, he became addicted to cracking their drunk-driving simulator, trying to find a gender, height, weight, and number of beers to enter into the computer that would still allow him to “get home safely.” “You’re telling me that a seven-foot-tall, 300-pound man can’t have beer?” Wyatt says. “I mean, I’m basically Shaquille O’Neal right now and I can’t have one beer?”

To Wyatt’s credit, according to a chart from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in this Business Insider article, Shaq could indeed have one beer. Also according to their chart, I am “impaired” after one drink and legally intoxicated after two. I have to say, given past experience, this makes sense.

Ira Flatow: The Sound of the Falls

Science Friday’s Ira Flatow appeared in one of our Brooklyn shows last summer, telling a story from his early days working for NPR, when he’d been assigned to find out what it sounds like to go over Niagara Falls -- using a recorder, not firsthand observation. He recounts his boss telling him, "I want to take a barrel and I want to throw it over Niagara Falls. But not just any sort of barrel. I want to put a tape recorder in the barrel so we can record what it sounds like to go over the falls in a barrel -- because very, very few people have survived to tell the tale of what that sounds like."

This turns out to be true! There is a Wikipedia page actually titled: “List of Objects that Have Gone Over Niagara Falls," and it's a bit of a grim read. (Can I please direct you to the entry from 1930, which includes the line “The turtle survived the ordeal”? I plan to end all future dinner party anecdotes with that line.) One thing I never thought of -- apparently fish swim over the Falls. "The volume of the Falls creates a cushion of air bubbles and water mixture at the base that softens the the surface of the plunge pool at the base of the Falls," and their bodies are built to absorb pressure, according to the website Niagara Falls Thunder Alley. Once, a tourist was grazed by a salmon that had been swept over the Falls.

So if you want to find out what it sounds like to go over Niagara Falls, you'll either have to listen to this story, or ask a fish.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In Recent Podcasts: Grandfathers and Hypothermia

Last week's podcast featured none other than Story Collider co-founder, Ben Lillie, aka my boss. What I love about this story is that it shows the importance of science communication on a granular level. We spend a lot of time thinking about science communication on a grand scale -- how do we educate the public, relay information to voters, become a more scientifically literate society? And all those things are important. But sometimes science communication can be as simple and as complex as a grandson wanting to understand his grandfather’s life. 

You can read about Ben's grandfather and his sailboats on his Wikipedia page here and find out "Whatever happened to the fun?" here. For more Ben Lillie magic, check out his previous story, "The Impostor Heart Attack."

Last week’s story came from neuroscientist Paula Croxson. Paula has helped Story Collider with our annual Brain Awareness Week shows, and told a story at a previous show about how her work helped her come to understand her grandmother’s neurological problems. The story Paula told with us this year is a little more lighthearted -- if still dangerous.

When Paula moved to New York from the UK, she wasn’t prepared for the culture shock. Looking for something familiar and comfortable, she began swimming, and this led her to sign up for her first open-water swimming race. Before listening to Paula’s story, I was unfamiliar with all the risks of ope- water swimming, particularly of hypothermia. “When you’re in the water the heat gets sucked away from you thirty times faster than it does in the air,” Paula says. The shivering can be a dangerous drain on a swimmer’s energy. “However,” Paula says ominously, “it’s not nearly as bad as when you stop shivering.”

Excuse me while I wrap myself in seven blankets.

Just wait until Paula tells you about “THE CLAW.”

Since listening to Paula’s story, I’ve read more about open water swimming and came across an article about the most dangerous open water swims that contained this passage, about Kim Chambers' swim across the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Kim Chambers... didn’t take warm showers for six months to prepare for the low temperatures. She was stung [by jellyfish] more than 200 times during her swim in 2014 and had to be hospitalised after she’d finished because of all the toxins in her body.

Yeah, I think I’ll stick to swimming pools. No offense, Paula.

See you next week!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

The Story Collider Podcast Achieves 5 Million Listens!

We're proud to announce that, as of today, The Story Collider's podcast has been listened to more than five million times on Soundcloud. Thank you so much, science story lovers, for helping us reach this goal! We've loved sharing every one of these stories with you.

As we continue to grow over the coming year, we'll need you help. Please help spread the word further -- by tweeting about us, writing reviews on iTunes, liking and commenting on stories on Soundcloud, sharing your favorite episodes with friends, etc. As always, we depend on you guys to get the word out. With your help, we can bring science stories to new and bigger audiences, and show more and more people how science is a real part of all our lives. 

Thanks again, from the entire staff of The Story Collider!


In This Week's Podcast: Equinox Magic

This week’s podcast came to us from our sixth (!) anniversary show at our home in Brooklyn, New York, from veteran storyteller and LGBT health educator Elana Lancaster.

Elana's story is about his overwhelming frustration when a student teacher attempted to teach his grade school class that, every year the on the vernal equinox, it's possible to balance eggs on their ends, due to planetary alignment -- something that young science enthusiast Elana immediately recognized as a myth.

It’s a hilarious example of that age-old problem -- what do you do when you KNOW the science and the person teaching you DOESN’T? What do you do when you know you’re right and the other person is wrong, but NOBODY will believe you?

I said, "You're wrong..."

I said, "You're wrong..."

Knowing nearly nothing about science myself, this is not a problem I have encountered often, though I know many people who have and it seems terribly frustrating for them.

In this case (SPOILER ALERT), Elana was of course right (shout out to astronomer Frank D. Ghigo for conducting the experiment that confirmed this in 1984!). Sure, you can balance an egg on the equinox, if you try hard enough, but you can also do this any old day of the year. Apparently there is a similar myth about brooms. (I never realized how creepy photos of brooms standing up on their own are!)

As a side note, Elana previously told a story with us about his partner’s transition that was, for me, transformative. There’s a moment, five minutes in, that I still sometimes think about and get serious feels from, even four years later.

Happy science story listening,

Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Summer's Podcasts: Pregnancies, STDs, Cow Insemination, and Heartbeats

I’ve been traveling quite a bit for the past few weeks, including an amazing trip, with our executive director Liz Neeley and co-founder Ben Lillie, down to Boulder, Colorado, where we worked with scientists from the multidisciplinary Biofrontiers Institute to hone their stories. I certainly learned a lot about many things, including but not limited to dolphin penises (they’re prehensile!) and fecal transplants (they’re a thing!).

Hannting. My nightmares.

Hannting. My nightmares.

Now that I’m back at home in my office, facing down this hideous stuffed dog that my husband won at Coney Island four years ago and that has haunted my dreams ever since, I’m reflecting on our previous four podcasts, which I haven’t had a chance to blog about during my globetrotting.


MaryAnn Wilbur: Two Pregnancies

One of my favorite kinds of stories from scientists are those in which their work suddenly becomes real to them in a new way. Something happens that really drives home the importance and the emotional significance of what they’re studying. In MaryAnn’s case, she was an OBGYN treating a woman who was exactly the same number of weeks pregnant that she was -- and that woman was going into labor.


Jo Firestone: A Sex Education

For those of you unfamiliar with Jo, she is a truly awesome comedian -- the hardest working comic in New York, in fact, some might say. Others might say weird. I suspect both are true. In the story she told for Story Collider, she believes fervently that she has an STD in college. There’s just one problem with this conclusion: She’s never had sex. Listen to this one to learn the basics of reproductive science.



Aaron Wolfe: The Inseminator

Aaron Wolfe is an old friend of mine, from back when he his talented wife, Naomi, lived in New York City too. This time, he told a story on our Boston stage. He’s a really dazzling storyteller -- the way he speaks on stage makes you feel as if he’s speaking just to you. The only thing I don’t like about his most recent Story Collider story is that I happened to be eating a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch when I first listened to it, as is my custom when perusing our audio files. Suffice to say this meal didn’t pair well with a story that I later titled “The Inseminator.”

For an Aaron Wolfe story you can listen to during lunch, check out his original SC story, about science disappointing him as a kid, as well as the stories he’s told for The Moth.


Skylar Bayer: The Hummingbird of Doom

Skylar Bayer, as you may know, has produced Story Collider shows in the great state of Maine, where she’s based, in the past, and so I naturally love any story she has to tell. This one may be her most powerful. The way she describes her heart problems in this story is so visceral, a couple of audience members had to leave the room to calm themselves down at the live show.

Other work by Sky includes her original Story Collider story, from back in 2013 when we first met at Science Online Oceans in Miami, as well as her appearance on The Colbert Report, on which she coined the immortal phrase, “Gonads. Scallop gonads.”


In This Week's Podcast: No Man Is an Island

This week’s podcast came to us from London, by way of the Pitcairn Islands. If you’ve never heard of the Pitcairn Islands, you’re not alone. Our storyteller, Henry Duffy, had never heard of them either until he signed up to work on a project on underwater cameras there.

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s near Australia,’” he says. “It’s not near Australia.”

Henry told his story at Round Chapel in London, at our first show in partnership with the British Science Association.

Henry told his story at Round Chapel in London, at our first show in partnership with the British Science Association.

To be fair, it's not actually near anywhere. The Pitcairn Islands -- which consist of Henderson, Ducie, Oeno, and the titular island of Pitcairn itself -- are in fact five hundred kilometers away from the nearest inhabited land. And only reachable by a boat that comes every three months. Talk about commitment to an assignment!

Not to mention, the island of Pitcairn is one of the world’s smallest communities by population. As of July, Pitcairn’s population was estimated at 49 people spread over just 23 households. (During his time, Henry estimates there were about 35 people living on the island.)

Fun facts about Pitcairn:

  • Pitcairn legalized gay marriage in 2015 despite having no known gay couples because there was “no reason not to.” Hard to argue with that, any way you look at it!

  • The Wikipedia page for Pitcairn contains such mind-blowing sentences as “All of Pitcairn's seven children were enrolled in school in 2000,” and “As of 2012, just two children had been born on Pitcairn in the 21 years prior.”

  • The residents of Pitcairn are mostly direct descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian consorts, who settled there in the late 1700s. In fact, many still have the original last names of the mutineers. The story of the mutiny on the Bounty is complicated and riveting, and highly worth falling down a Wikipedia black hole for. There's also a Mel Gibson movie about it, if you're into that sort of thing.

  • The language of Pitkern is taught alongside English in school. It’s a creole language that blends eighteenth-century English of the mutineers with the Tahitian of their consorts. 

Of course, to really understand what it’s like to live on Pitcairn -- for 97 days, no less -- you’ll just have to listen to Henry’s story. Stay tuned for more upcoming shows in the UK in partnership with the British Science Association!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In Last Week's Podcast: Man Flees Academia

Note: The blog for this podcast is slightly delayed as I was out of the office last week.

Last week’s podcast came to us from Nathan Boll at the National Academy of Science’s Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C. It was our second trip down to the Koshland Museum, where we put on a show with NAS’s Mirzayan Fellows. The Mirzayan Fellowship is the NAS’s twelve-week program for early-career scientists. After NAS policy fellow Christine Mirzayan was tragically murdered by a serial killer in 1998, the National Academy of Sciences established the Christine Mirzayan Memorial Fund “to celebrate Christine's love of life, enthusiasm for science, intelligence and high aspirations for contributing to human welfare.”

The Mirzayan Fellowship holds a special place in Story Collider’s heart for many other reasons, too. We got to know our DC producer, Shane Hanlon, when he was a Mirzayan Fellow and invited us to put on our first show at the Koshland. We also love the stories that come from these passionate young scientists and the close bond they seem to forge over their three months working together. This photo, on the right, of Nathan and co-fellows Kavita Chandra and Rochelle Williams, falling into a group hug after their stories, is one of my favorites ever taken at a Story Collider show.

Nathan spent his fellowship working with the Space Studies Board, helping the steering committee of the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space begin the “eighteen-month-long process of determining the Earth science priorities for the nation's space programs.” (That sounds exhausting! But important!)

Now, Nathan is working with Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress responsible for providing confidential, objective reports to Congress. As you can hear in his story, it’s been a long, winding road to bring him here, full of bongos and odd jobs. But I think his journey is a great example of how unexpected experiences can inform your perspective on science.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Baby Doctor Climbs Everest

This week’s story comes to us from New York, from Nitin Ron. Nitin is a neonatologist -- or, as he explains, a “baby doctor.” (Not, not this.) He cares for premature and newborn babies, whom he admires because “they have mastered the art and the science of being in the moment.” Who can argue with that?

Naturally, in addition to saving babies’ lives, Nitin has also climbed Mt. Everest four times. (Bit of an overachiever, I would say. But then again, I am still wearing my pajamas at 3 pm.) His story blends the lessons he learned while scaling the Himalayas with those he learned from his tiny patients to show that sometimes we need powers beyond scientific understanding. The result is something truly -- and I don't use this word lightly -- heartwarming. 

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Teenager's Voice Slips Away

This week’s story comes to us from Brooklyn, from journalist Emily Mullin. When Emily was a teenager, she acted and sang and wanted to be a broadcast journalist. So naturally she developed a neurological condition that stood in the way of all of those things! As one does.

Emily's voice had started to become weak and unstable, and speaking was an effort. It turned out this was due to spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes spasms in the vocal cords. With Emily’s kind of SD, called adductor, messages from the brain aren’t properly relayed to the vocal cords and so the vocal cords just slam together.

“The voice that was coming out of my mouth wasn’t mine,” Emily says in her story.

Emily on stage at Union Hall. I call this one  "WTF, Spasmodic Dysphonia?"

Emily on stage at Union Hall. I call this one "WTF, Spasmodic Dysphonia?"

It’s something that seems bizarre, or even funny, until you think about what it would really be like to lose control of your voice. In an excellent article Emily herself wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, she pointed out that voice disorders can affect every part of the sufferer’s life, from their social life to their professional life to their emotional well-being.

“Our voice is our ambassador to the rest of the world,” says Dr. Norman Hogikyan, director of the University of Michigan Health System Vocal Health Center. “Often a first impression is based upon a person’s voice.”
For people with voice disorders, a part of our identity is stripped away. Our weak voices can be unfairly associated with emotional sensitivity, a lack of confidence, lower intelligence, and sometimes, physical illness.

To get the true picture of what it’s like to feel your voice slipping away, listen to Emily’s story, above. For more information, check out more of Emily’s excellent reporting on this subject (I have to say -- broadcast’s loss is print’s gain), including this recent story on speech recognition programs.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director


In This Week's Podcast: A Man's Obsession With Jock Itch

This week's podcast, which comes to us from Providence, Rhode Island, tells the story of Jeff Sparr's struggle with obsession-compulsion disorder, a mental illness characterized by unwanted and persistent thoughts and urges. In Jeff's case, it manifested in the form of a preoccupation with jock itch.

My favorite thing about this story is how unflinchingly honest Jeff is. He's not afraid to be vulnerable and speak frankly about his illness. "I became totally consumed with it," he says. "It got to the point where I was wearing different underwear and using different powders and creams. Not only was it affecting my athletic career, but it got to the point where was affecting my life in college." 

I don't think I'll say any more except that the moment at 5:43, when Jeff discovers a very unexpected passion, is my favorite.

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

In This Week's Podcast: A Neuroscientist Forgets Her Name

This week’s story, "A Picture of My Brain," came to us from Providence. Newly married and halfway through her PhD in neuroscience, Amanda Duffy is excited to get $20 and an image of her brain when she volunteers to be a control in an MRI study. Instead, she gets a diagnosis of intraventricular meningioma, a rare brain tumor.

The lesson here is, Never get your brain scanned. I think.

When she wakes up from her brain surgery, her problems are far from over. She finds herself unable to correctly answer simple questions such as, What is your name?

“Imagine, halfway through your PhD in neuroscience, forgetting how to multiply, tell time, or understand what the number four is,” she says. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine. As far as I’m concerned, a PhD in neuroscience is hard enough to get already.

It turns out these things are all symptoms of Gerstmann Syndrome, a rare disorder that can occur after brain injury. Gerstmann Syndrome was discovered by, who else, Josef Gerstmann, an Austrian neurologist, in 1924, after a 52-year-old woman was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Vienna with writing and memory problems. People suffering from Gerstmann Syndrome (not to be confused with Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome -- this guy really likes naming things after himself)  usually have four main symptoms:

  • Dysgraphia, which is a fancy word for being unable to write coherently.
  • Dyscalculia, which is a fancy word for being unable to do math. I know, sounds familiar to many of us. But this can actually go a lot farther than being bad at multiplication. Gerstmann sufferers often can’t do simple arithmetic or even visualize numbers, as Amanda described above.
  • Finger agnosia. Josef Gerstmann was the first person to define this (and somehow, he managed not to name it after himself). It’s described as an inability to “distinguish, name, or recognize the fingers.” And it includes not just your own fingers, but everyone else’s too, oddly enough.
  • Left-right disorientation -- or not being able to tell left from right. (I know. This one is almost a let-down after the other three.)

Of course, for a real-life glimpse into the mind of someone dealing with Gerstmann Syndrome, you’ll just have to listen to Amanda’s story...

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider

The Story Collider Seeks New Producer for LA Series

The Story Collider is seeking a new producer to launch our series in Los Angeles. As producer, your job would be to work with our team to find appropriate venues, recruit and coach storytellers from both science and non-science backgrounds, and plan and promote shows on a quarterly basis. There will also be opportunities to contribute to the broader organization.

Scientific background is not required, but passion for and experience with storytelling is. We’d love to hear about and help you develop your marketing, audio production, and other event-related expertise. Applicants must have good communication skills and respect for people from all walks of life.

This is not a full-time position. Producers are paid on a per-show basis.

Those interested should email stories@storycollider.org with the subject line "LA Producer." Please include a resume and a brief explanation of why you would like to be a Story Collider producer. Hope to hear from you soon!

-- Erin Barker, Artistic Director

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