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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

What's it take to make storytelling more than a buzzword in scicomm?

Tl;dr/navel gazing alert: This is a process and thinking out loud post. If you want to jump to the storytelling resources I've linked to, just head to the bottom.

Screenshot of a slide that depicts a mouse telling a lot of other animals a story. (It is an illustration from john Tenniel's 1865 illustrations for the satire novel Alice in Wonderland.)
Image: Sir John Tenniel, 1865

I am fairly ambivalent about the trend of storytelling in scicomm. Like many dimensions of scicomm or other "make science/sharing science/academia better" schemes, storytelling has been so widely prescribed that it is now abstract. When an effort toward improvement, or a recommended tool, is abstracted, it becomes virtually meaningless, in part because people just starting out with it cannot access meaningful discussion of how to do or use it [1].

I have this concern about storytelling even though I have a lot of experience writing stories. I've done a lot of freelancing for newspapers and magazines, wrote children's stories about science, and even trained in creative writing. I have also taught workshops and semester-long courses using narrative/creative writing/storytelling techniques to improve everything from grad students' mental health around writing to faculty members' grant writing efforts. I get invited to do workshops and talks on storytelling with some frequency, perhaps in part thanks to my transdisciplinary research (and writing and exhibit) on one of the world's most familiar fables: the tortoise and the hare. And, I love children's books. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I collect children's books as the ultimate examples of compelling visual + textual storytelling.


With this kind of experience, it should be easy to get on the storytelling train. But, I remain conflicted.


Lots out there about why storytelling

I was thinking consciously about all that earlier this week, as I prepped for another workshop on storytelling for scicomm. I reread the values + storytelling paper I led a couple years ago. And, I went through every reference I've squirreled away for teaching about storytelling.


Lots of interesting papers and commentaries exist. They talk about an astounding array of topics that are especially fun to think about if you're nerdy about storytelling. Here are just a few of my favorites:

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