A panel on storytelling in science communication

The Science in Public conference takes place at Nottingham Uni, 22-23rd July.

I’ve really enjoyed the conference in previous years – it’s a good mix (for me) of stuff about practical examples of public engagement with science, and abstract theorising about same. It’s very diverse in what it covers – last year I remember sessions about science coverage on the BBC, sex in exhibitions at the British Museum, dialogues on stem cells, and loads more.

I’ve always had stimulating conversations, and come away with loads of new thoughts in my head, which is pretty much what I ask of a conference.

They’ve just announced their panels for this year, and issued a Call for Papers.

They are asking people to apply to one of the panels. But there are also open panels, in case you wanted to talk about something that doesn’t fit any existing ones, so go have a look:-).

I’m chairing a panel, on storytelling and public engagement with science. More details below.

If you’re interested in being on this panel, get in touch. Or if you know someone else you think would be relevant, please let them know about it.

To be perfectly honest, I thought the way it worked was I’d put in my panel suggestion, and then if it was picked, it would be my job to find speakers for it. But it turns out you can all apply. I’ve never organised a panel at a conference before, so I’ve no idea if that’s normal, but it’s great that it’s open. I just hope people will apply…

Apparently I get to choose what papers to accept for this panel (ooooh, the power!), so I’m putting a bit more info here about what I’d envisaged. That’s not to say you can’t change my mind! I’m happy to have an informal chat (phone/email/twitter/whatever you prefer) if you’re interested.

My one requirement is that you have to tell a story.

Here’s the abstract I submitted about the panel:-

Title: Are you sitting comfortably? The untapped potential of oral storytelling in public engagement with science.

Format: Three or four panellists from projects involving storytelling and public engagement with science. Each panellist will sing for their supper by telling a story – a proper story – and only then briefly outlining their project and what they think storytelling brings. The audience then break into small groups and tell each other stories, which they’ll then feed back to the whole group, an opportunity to experience and reflect on storytelling and storysharing.

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.”

Storytelling is arguably the oldest artform. Originally it was oral, live, and inexorably social. It functioned as entertainment, as a cultural collective memory, and as a tool to transmit knowledge, values and social norms. Nowadays we have a plethora of other media jostling for our attention, but we still all listen to stories and tell stories every day.

In recent years there’s been a resurgence of live storytelling, with storytelling festivals, clubs and a National Storytelling Week. But this isn’t something that’s been explicitly explored much in science communication or public engagement. (There is a lot of discussion of the importance of telling stories – in the sense of using narrative – but that’s a more general point.)

This panel explores and illustrates what stories can bring, by bringing together people to talk about different projects which used live storytelling.

To expand on that a little more:-

I’m a bit obsessed with storytelling – live storytelling – as regular readers may have noticed from my Tales from the River project. So the panel is not about using narrative in writing about science, or TV, or whatever. Those are useful things to discuss, and narrative in general is great, but I wanted to focus in a bit more, and talk about live storytelling.

The first time I ever went to see a live storyteller – it was at the Guid Craic Club in Edinburgh – I spent the first five minutes wishing I hadn’t come. I’d dragged my friend along against her will. It was in the upstairs room of a pub, with tatty wallpaper and sticky carpets. Some old guy stood up to ask everyone to be quiet, and I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be excruciatingly dull, and there’s too few people here for us to leave surreptitiously.”

Then the old guy started speaking. And within minutes, the room and the wallpaper and the sticky carpets were miles away, and I was crossing a highland loch in a boat…

That is what an amazing storyteller can do. And it’s truly an artform. The earliest stories were this – told, in person, in words, with voice and body and heart – it’s the root of where story comes from. It’s the bedrock, the wellspring, the fount of all story. It annoys me beyond measure that The Story conference (which is great and fascinating in many ways) bills itself as ‘about stories and story-telling’ but completely ignores the whole storytelling scene. But I digress…

A great storyteller can fire the imagination, creating worlds in your mind’s eye. But you don’t have to be a truly amazing storyteller, like the best ones I’ve seen, to get some value out of live storytelling. (Which is lucky, cos I’m nothing like that good.) But telling stories in person has an immediacy, a humanity, an intimacy. Parents and grandparents tell stories to children. Teenagers tell ghost stories, drinking cider round a camp fire. Miserable dates or lost luggage are reclaimed as anecdotes to amuse our friends.

So, enough waffling, here are some of the things I think are special about storytelling. If there are projects you’d like to talk about that illustrate any of these angles (or others I haven’t mentioned) then get in touch. Your project will most likely have been public engagement with science in some way, but it doesn’t have to be, if you think it might shed some light or give people some ideas.

Democratising

Everyone has a story. If you ask people to talk about their first memory of X, or their favourite story about Y, then everyone is on the same level. Which makes it easier then for scientists and members of the public to talk, people to people.

Humanising

Stories usually involve human things we can relate to – we’ve all been embarrassed or frightened or grumpy. Sharing stories helps us see people from other groups – like scientists – as like us.

Personal

When you tell a story, especially about something that’s happened to you, you’re often speaking from the real you (if you get what I mean). It stops people talking in bullet points and lectures and facts – I don’t just mean scientists, but audience blowhards too:-).

Engaging

Stories are more involving, easier to listen to, more memorable, than lists of facts.

Emotional

Telling a story about a day out from your childhood is something different to recounting facts like where the old cinema used to be. There’s a reason that reminiscence sessions are popular with old people, and those who work with them. There’s a reason oral history captures something that other sources don’t.

Similarly, with things like narrative-based medicine, there’s something different in recounting the story of why you’ve come to the doctors that is qualitatively different from recounting a list of symptoms. And potentially richer in information.

Childhood associations

Most of us have memories of being told stories as children, and the associations we have with that are often positive, reassuring, calming. I’ve seen talks on the use of storytelling in psychiatric hospitals, describing how some patients who responded to little else were calmed by stories, start listening and want to hear the end.

Sense-making

Telling our own stories allows us to make sense of things that have happened to us. Sometimes we use that to play around with how we feel about them or what sense to make of them.

And finally…

I could go on, but I think these are starting to overlap. You get the idea, I think. As I said, do get in touch if you want to discuss this. Otherwise, just send something in. It says on the conference site that you should send abstracts of 250-300 words, but I don’t mind if you send something shorter or longer. Or even if you send me a drawing or a YouTube clip of you telling me a story, or whatever random thing you like instead. Obviously it will be best if I can tell what you’re planning to talk about, but…

8 responses to “A panel on storytelling in science communication

  1. Very excited that you’re doing this, it encapsulates a whole range of elements I explore in my work and encompasses many of the reasons I love storytelling so much…..am off to have a think!

  2. Hello Sophia – if I could tell a joke, let alone a whole story, I’d love to join in. Although writing stories is easy-peasy for me. But I think for this event you need a science-y Daniel Kitson!

  3. Dear Sophia, a professional storyteller in the US who is also an emerging scholar of storytelling studies at the University of Missouri, I am involved in my university’s multidisciplinary science communication committee and planning our first campus wide workshop in June. At present I am awaiting word about another conference I’ve applied to that is the same week as this event. I should hear by the end of May whether or not my presentation was accepted to that one. If it turns out I’m free that week, I’d like to send you some ideas. Whatever happens, all best with your panel.

  4. In my excitement at seeing this blog, I did not see the dates of the posting and other entries. Am assuming that the entry opportunity is long past, but remain very interested in what happens. All best.

    • Hi Milbre,

      Thanks for getting in touch and for your interest in the panel. Yes, I’m afraid that the closing date for papers has passed and we have picked the panellists already. However, your work sounds very relevant and interesting! Please do keep in touch. I’m terrible at posting to this blog, but I promise I will put something up about the panel afterwards. It may take a while though as I’m expecting my first child on 1st July…

      Sophia

  5. Pingback: Update on the storytelling and sci comm panel at Science in Public conference | The dual carriageway to Damascus

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