Your Data Matters. But So Does Your Story.

A tenet of Research!America’s advocacy has always been to implore scientists to tell their stories – not their data. Stories connect with other people, i.e., non-scientists, in a way that data cannot. A hundred heartfelt words do more than 100 million data points.

We know this because people, i.e., non-scientists, have told us. They have demonstrated it to us.

Alan Alda’s improv classes at Stony Brook University turned scientists into storytellers. We’ve heard from Members of Congress that stories keep them engaged. And if that’s not enough, we have an in-person demonstration from part of the crew at the traveling show/podcast called The Story Collider.

Ben Lillie, PhD, is the co-founder and director, and Erin Barker is the senior producer for the show that brings stories of science to the public. During a recent talk at TEDMED, first noted at last week, Lillie explains the stress and anxiety of earning a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University – and it’s easy to imagine that stress, right?

Just wait until you hear it. (Go watch the video above if you haven’t already. We’ll wait …)

If you’re like us, Lillie’s story drew you in. It didn’t take any particular rhetorical flourish or comedic timing or sensational plot twist. It was a guy telling a relatable story, sans data.

And that’s hardly the only way to go about it. There’s a page on The Story Collider website dedicated to scientists telling their stories. There are 10 examples, but we’ll pick up the three by medical researchers.

Doug Fields, PhD, is chief of the Nervous System Development & Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. His talk is less than 10 minutes, yet it conveys the awe of scientific discovery.

Daniela Schiller, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine (a Research!America member), details how her work led her to a greater understanding of her father, a Holocaust survivor.

And David Carmel, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University (also a Research!America member), explains the challenge of balancing his training in neuroscience and his role as the son of a father stricken by a stroke. The story’s end is a pure thunderbolt.

The common theme among all these stories is that they’re personal. The Story Collider website notes that, of the four stories, the only portion of lecturing is Carmel’s explanation of the homunculus. “It’s the kind of lecturing we normally try to avoid,” the website reads, “but it’s absolutely essential to the story that the audience understands this. Because of that, it doesn’t feel at all like a lecture, it feels like plot development. Ideally, every bit of science in one of our stories would be like this.”

These four are beautiful stories, beautifully told – not because the storytellers are professional speakers, but because they come from the heart. There’s a subtle yet distinct difference between why your research is important and why it’s important to you.

When you tell your family and your neighbors and your elected representatives, be sure to tell them your story. The data is the data; your story is your own.

So: What is your story? And who will be impacted by your story today?

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