Peter is a very interesting guy. He’s worked for years with arts institutions, and recently became very interested in the problems of communicating science in the modern world. He wanted to do a piece for the curator issue on how storytelling fits into that, and the conversation ended up being a fantastic way for me to get down some ideas that have been kicking around, but I’d never written down. We got to talk about how storytelling works, how people learn science facts, how emotion fits into lectures, and much more.
Peter also did a fantastic job with the editing, which means I sound way better than I did on the phone. Here’s a short excerpt:
Q. [Using emotion is] such a contrast to the lecture, which is a form that has traditionally downplayed telling the audience how you felt. It would get in the way of the facts, the subject matter you’re lecturing about.
A. That’s what’s revelatory to a lot of people in the Story Collider context—to the scientists who tell stories as well as the audience. They’re talking about neuroscience or chemistry or whatever, and at the same time they’re talking about a personal experience and how it felt. That’s just not done in most science settings.
That’s not strictly true about lectures, either. I think the magic of TED talks, and the reason many, many people want to watch them, is that they’re building in an emotional component. This is a big lesson for people who want to do science communication, or any sort of communication: you’ve got to engage the audience at some deeper level, you can’t just give a recitation of facts. In the storytelling world we make a strong distinction between a story and an anecdote. An anecdote is something that happened. A story is something that happened and it meant something, it changed you. What I think we find is that a lot of what’s going on in science communication is more anecdote-ish. We haven’t conveyed why it matters and who changed.
And by far my favorite question that he asked:
Q. That reminds me how many four-letter words I’ve heard from your storytellers, which is par for the course in storytelling but less so in science communication. Is that part of how science can be pitched to grownups?
Fuck yeah, it is.