A Storymaking App for Your Science Videos

As I’ve discussed in this blog previously, scientists are often hampered in getting their science message across because they fail to tell a compelling story that will appeal to others. Instead, we bombard the reader/viewer/listener with facts, facts, and more facts, in the mistaken idea that most people are as impressed with data as we are. If that were true, there would not be so many climate change skeptics or intelligent design enthusiasts.

We scientists may be fascinated with the bare facts, but our audience is likely not so enamored. It’s a paradox. How we are trained to communicate in science (by stating facts and figures in an unemotional, rational manner) is not necessarily the way our audience prefers to hear the message.

One approach that clearly works for many types of messages is to frame the information in the form of a story. Most people love stories and will stick around to find out how it all turns out. Hollywood knows this principle quite well and has been very successful at selling stories to millions of people (even while getting the science wrong). Scientists, however, tend to shy away from the idea of “storytelling” possibly because they think it involves an exaggeration or a twisting of the facts. This is a misinterpretation (or narrow interpretation) of the term, storytelling. Although storytelling can involve embellishment or even complete fantasy, it can also be a means of conveying accurate information about a scientific topic.

In an effort to bring the storytelling method to science, Randy Olson and coauthors Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, have written a book called “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking” and created an app called “Connection Storymaker” (currently free in the App Store) to assist in structuring a story. In this post, I’m going to focus on the app and leave the review of the book until later (after I’ve read it…of course; I’m waiting for the Kindle version). Olson’s previous book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” takes us to task for being too cerebral, too literal minded, poor storytellers, and generally unlikeable (see my previous post on this topic). This new book offers guidance about how to be better storytellers, and the app is a tool designed to help that process along.

So I decided to give the app a whirl. In the video below, I use the app to construct a science story. As you will see, the app is designed around two basic models. The first is the WSP model, which stands for Word, Sentence, Paragraph. The Word helps you organize your story around a central theme (hope, perseverance, dignity). The sentence is based on another model, the ABT (And, But, Therefore) model, which is a template to begin structuring your story. The Paragraph is based on something called a Logline template, which is more complex and consists of 9 parts taken from Joseph Campbell’s storyline, “The Hero’s Journey” (aka, monomyth):

1. In an ordinary world….

2. A flawed protagonist…

3. A catalytic event happens…

4. After taking stock…

5. The hero commits to action…

6. The stakes get raised…

7. The hero must learn a lesson…

8. To stop the antagonist…

9. To achieve their goal…

The app is easy to understand and use. It will be helpful for those scientists who are poor storytellers to structure their message into the form of a story. The main shortcoming is that The Hero’s Journey Logline is the only one built into the app–so far. More Loglines based on other plots may be added in the future (and you’ll probably have to pay for the upgrade). The hero Logline does not necessarily fit all science stories. If the centerpiece of your story will be a scientist, then the app will work for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a different focus (like the science topic), then you’ll have to wait for more Loglines.

In the meantime, you can read more about applying storytelling methods to convey science information (especially in giving oral presentations) and see some other storylines in this blog post. A nice article on how to use storytelling in scientific writing can be found here.

In the video below, I show how I used the Storymaker app to create a story about the theory of continental drift (select the HD version and full-screen for best viewing).

5 thoughts on “A Storymaking App for Your Science Videos

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