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What Kind of Science Storytelling Works Best?

What’s better at motivating climate change action — analytical information, or a story?

Most science communicators would automatically say “storytelling” — and now a new study out from the journal Climatic Change will only strengthen that reflex.

The paper argues that embedding climate change messages within an actual story is more effective than fact-based arguments at provoking durable “pro-environmental behaviors” in your audience.

How stories do this — by triggering autonomic systems in your body that allow you to identify with the story’s characters, bypassing your cognitive arguments and social identity and thus allow the story’s messages to do an end-run around your defenses — is detailed nicely in the paper. I recommend it if you want to geek out on the science of storytelling, but I won’t go over it here.

However, here’s something I found fascinating and have to share:

The first study the researchers conducted for the paper (there were three studies total) began by giving a) one group a story to read about reaching a zero-waste life and b) another group seven paragraphs of facts and argument about the importance of reaching zero waste in one’s life and directions on how to do it.

I’ll spare you the text of b) because it’s godawful. But below is the story given to the first group — see if you can tell what’s different about it from the way science communicators usually tell stories:

Anne wished this was all just a bad dream. She startled awake, heart pounding. In the nightmare, the vast ocean was filled with plastic of every kind: flimsy plastic bags, drinking straws, coffee cup lids, and millions of the small, colored bottle caps. There she stood in a tiny boat, rocked by waves and trying desperately not to fall into the debris.

As she splashed water on her face later that morning, feelings of hopelessness, guilt and worry overwhelmed her. The sad truth was that her nightmare was actually coming true. The ocean was being filled with plastic. And it didn’t just fill the oceans, it was in landfills, littering the sides of roads, and even floating around in her own body.

In an attempt to distract herself, Anne opened her laptop and scanned through Facebook while sipping a cup of steaming hot coffee. The words, “Bea Johnson: zero waste” caught her eye. There was a video. She clicked. The camera showed a sleek, immaculate home. Anne stared at the kitchen pantry, stocked with glass jars full of rice, beans, flour and sugar. She watched as Bea Johnson walked through a supermarket with a shopping cart stocked with reusable glass jars and cloth bags. She saw Bea chatting with the man behind the deli counter as he stuffs cheese wedges into glass jars she brought from home. She watched, stunned, as Bea shook a liter sized glass jar containing all the trash generated by her family of four in an entire year. Bea talked about how her low waste lifestyle has created a simplified and more meaningful way of being in the world.

In that moment, Anne’s life changed forever. I could do that, she thought. I will try to make less trash. That was more than a year ago and Anne has taken big steps towards her goal.

It was hard at first. Most of the things she usually bought – meats, fruits and vegetables — were wrapped in plastic. There were very few stores that offered bulk items. Carrying clanking glass jars around on your bicycle made you sound like a drunk, or so her friends teased. And there were very few shop owners who understood what she was trying to accomplish. She laughs about the first time she tried to buy feta from a small cheese shop and tried to explain to the guy behind the counter that she wanted her cheese in her own glass jar. The exchange ended with him placing her jar full of cheese in a plastic bag and handing it to her. Red faced and embarrassed, she didn’t bother trying to give the bag back.

What began as an experiment has now become a way of life. Little by little, Anne has changed her shopping habits to make less waste. Even the cheese guy knows how to package her feta these days. And although Anne does still sometimes worry about the future of the environment, she no longer feels guilty or hopeless because she has become part of the solution.

Here’s what I see: It’s a story with the audience member at the center of it. Moving from powerless to empowered.

Not the planet. Not the scientist. Not the process of science. Not other people impacted by climate change for whom the audience might have sympathy but whom they’ll never meet. And not even the group or the country or the community that the audience member is a part of at the center of it.

Instead…the actual audience member. Powerless, and then empowered.

That’s almost never the way science communication tells stories, even when it tells good ones.

But it makes total sense if your goal is to empower and motivate the audience.

So, before you talk about “storytelling” as the solution for science communication, please specify:

A story about whom? In which they move from what to what?

I think about all my colleagues back in biodiversity conservation, telling wonderful stories about the most amazing creatures on the planet and getting zero traction with those outside of the small audience that feels about these creatures just as deeply as they do.

And I wonder if this part of the paper actually has proven anything about storytelling — other than we need confirmation about whom we should be telling stories, and what those stories really give their subjects and their audiences.