What’s Your Story?


“What is it exactly that you do, again?”

If you work in the sciences, you’ve probably been asked that question before. When talking with colleagues within your field, you have the luxury of using technical terminology. But when speaking to researchers in different disciplines — and to the lay public, to say the least — we lose that common glossary.

We now must explain ourselves — and our work — with concise words that others can understand and relate to.

Science writers deal with this challenge all the time. They have to comprehend and convey a different scientific discipline with each new assignment, yet somehow find a way to introduce the work of each researcher using snappy yet meaningful statements — starting in the form of headlines.

Consider this headline about forest mortality researchers:

(Image copyright: Michael Clark/High Country News)

(Image copyright: Michael Clark/High Country News)

It reads:

THE TREE CORONERS
To save the West’s forests, scientists first must learn how trees die

What a powerful combination of words and juxtaposition of ideas. Most people know that coroners investigate human cadavers to determine causes of death, so a “tree coroner” sounds like an expert who does the same for trees. And the irony of learning about death to save a thing is another conceptual jolt that sticks in your head. Just imagine this theme converted into a line for a cocktail party:

“I study how trees die,” said the ecologist. “To learn how we can save our forests. You could say I’m a tree coroner…”

A more easily understood — yet intriguingly elegant — alternative to, say, “I’m studying the climatic and hydrologic correlates of forest mortality…”

* * * * *

Another environment that cultivates clear, pithy science explanations is Twitter.

One good example of answering “what’s your story” using concise tweets is the Twitter hashtag #1tweetresearch, kicked off by astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) in July 2014. On Twitter, Mack challenged fellow researchers to tweet the elevator-pitch version of their research program — “like a one-tweet research proposal.”

 

You can see the news-headline mentality come through in some of the better tweets:

(“The Memory of Galaxies”… now that’s a headline.)

(Mack has curated more tweets here: https://storify.com/AstroKatie/one-tweet-research)

 

Be it a tweet or a headline, or other forms of concise prose, your ability to tell your story in quick, clear language and familiar contexts will translate far beyond a party icebreaker. This distillation of your research concept can be applied to other forms of science communication — as the prompt for a scientific illustration or graphic, or the driving theme for a film production, or the tagline to your lab webpage, or the mission statement of an outreach project — or the opening line of your research grant proposal.

So here’s your exercise:  Find a colleague outside your field and ask them their story — then explain what they do in the form of a headline or a tweet. 

 

The above notes on science communications are planning sketches for the opening activity at “Beyond the Written Word”, a workshop for advancing ecology communication through multimedia held at the Ecological Society of America’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California (WK 15), organized by Chris Creese, Holly Menninger, Bethann G. Merkle, and Clarisse Hart.

The headline-writing exercise is a staple of many communications training courses, but I will credit the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship opening orientation as my inspiration for using it as a workshop icebreaker.

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