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  • Aimee Catalan

Tenets of telling a great science story

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

When we hear and see the word tenet, our first thoughts are, if nothing else, that it is a laconic little palindrome. Of late, it is the title of a Bond-inspired, mind-bending action movie. When we dig a little deeper, tenets are the principle of belief often attributed to religion or philosophy.

Authors Roger and Amy Aines use the word 'tenet' to describe an action to enhance a scientific presentation. I believe tenets also form frameworks and roadmaps for communication behaviours that should be embraced to improve your science story. Sometimes if you want to convey STEM at its best, you must add a little STEAM into the mix.

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn, known for coining the phrase ‘paradigm shift’, argued that perception ‘cannot be separated’ from scientific reality. Scientists use their own words to describe their science but as we all have very different views of the world, we see, hear, and feel messages in different ways. For instance, when viewing a colour CT, a neurologist and an artist will see it in very different ways and from completely different perspectives.

When we tell a story to an audience that does not share the same professional perspective as us or to each other, it is up to us as storytellers to weave those perspectives together. The tenets of telling a great science story provide a framework of communication strategies that will assist in melding the science and story together in a way that is engaging to the audience. The tenets create a roadmap for you, the scientist, to follow that will bring different views and professional perspectives together while you champion your science widely.

As with most things that look easy, it takes practice, practice, practice.

Tenets of telling a great science story

1. Be passionate, have energy and show you care. Enthusiasm is contagious, and listeners cannot help but be carried along through your science story. Aristotle believed that great communicators embraced three fundamental canons. The first is pathos, the ability to use emotion in speech but also to understand the emotion of their audience. Passion is important and will assist others in seeing the potential of your idea and your science.

2. Be human, relatable and truthful. Aristotle’s second canon is ethos or credibility. Always check your facts and your sources. Demonstrate that you are a great scientist. This in combination with behaving in a relatable way, invites others to get to know you and your science. This tenet weaves ethos and pathos together.

3. Be understandable. Not every audience will have a science background. By dumbing down your science to make it ‘understandable’, infers that your audience does not have the ability to understand. They ARE intelligent, they have just not been ‘initiated’ into your science yet. Choose your words carefully, avoid acronyms and use common language that matches the profile of your audience. This is Aristotle’s third canon. The content and words you choose to make your story persuasive and understandable is called ‘logos’.

4. Distil and clarify your message. Create an overarching message and few points to support your message. It’s a straightforward and succinct way to tell your story.

5. Create a big picture view. Frame three messages, what exists today, what the future holds and how your will work to fill that gap. Often you will have a very limited amount of time. Make it count and don’t get bogged down in the detail. Details come later.

6. Know who is listening. Take time to learn about your audience. A venture capital group will be very different to government who will be entirely different to a philanthropic audience. A bit of front-end research to learn who they are and what they will want to hear will help you to determine what you want them to think and feel about your science and how your story will get them there.

7. Remember why it matters. Promoting science for the sake of science can leave out why it matters to the world. Answer your audience’s ‘why’. There is an important value piece to your story. Don’t leave it out.

8. Impact. There is an artful balance between precision and impact. Part of a great story is learning to think and speak in shorter sentences. Pause when needed, silence can be as potent as speech. Give you audience a moment to digest your science message. This is logos again.

9. Collaborate and get advice. Preparing for a presentation does not have to be done in isolation. Get advice, bounce ideas off peers, mentors, advisors, and influencers. Accept feedback, as difficult as it can be. It will improve your science story.

10. Call to action. You must know why you are talking to your audience. What do you want from them? Financial support and funding? Make the ask, every time. You are building relationships and advancing your work. A call to action is explicit, not implicit.

11. Argue and influence wisely. Be patient. There is a process involved in convincing decision makers to support you. Learn what matters most to your audience. Leverage each conversation and presentation to build support for your science.

12. Enjoy yourself. Public speaking can be daunting and scary. Try to remember that this is your science, your story. Others want to hear what you have to say, or they would likely not be a part of your audience.

The tenets of telling a great science story are a guide. It is a formula that is equal parts, science, humanities, and communication. The result is a persuasive argument that is 100% your story.

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