How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

The Problem with Storytelling (and a More Useful Concept)

​We’re awash in the industry of storytelling:

  • Storytelling consultants selling storytelling templates and workshops and webinars and books, all with guidance for the majority of us afflicted with the lack of confidence to tell compelling stories but who conveniently, it turns out, just need a little paid training to unlock and unleash the unique story within us and to recognize the great characters in our lives and turn those, too, into powerful stories, all in order to revolutionize our impact, performance and lives.
  • Storytelling podcasts that genuflect to the evidence-based power of storytelling to change minds and hearts (and that all sound like “This American Life”).
  • Storytelling speeches that kick off and/or end with a personal story, because science tells us that’s the best way for the speaker to show her vulnerability and forge a durable connection with the audience, making it more receptive to the talk’s messages.

Now, I tell good stories. I like hearing good stories. And I know good stories can be powerful weapons of communication.

But I’ve coached hundreds of scientists and researchers to give excellent talks that win them and their organizations funding and attention. And very few of those talks end up being built around stories — personal or otherwise.

Why is that?

  • Because storytelling is just one way to deliver information and insight. It isn’t always the most effective — it depends on the audience. And a little goes a long way.
  • Because, while authenticity and credibility can be conveyed through story, it isn’t the only way, and it’s not necessarily the best way.
  • Because stories interrupt the narrative momentum of a talk — which means they potentially interrupt an audience’s attention, which is fatal. The attentional value of the story needs to be high enough to compensate for the interruption. That’s a high bar.

I’ll ask my clients if they have stories that illustrate their points. If they have good ones, we’ll use them.

But there’s nothing mandatory about stories. In fact: Audiences are now so accustomed to hearing storytelling in talks that you can almost hear the sag in the room when the story begins. Oh, here’s the story now. The entertainment. I can sit back and relax for a while. The storytelling talk has become to our time what the sonata form was to Mozart’s — and, then as now, we have very, very few Mozarts in our midst.

Stories should illustrate. They should be surprising and illuminating and above all on point. But they are a spice, not the meal — especially for researchers seeking to establish authority. (Great example: Clio Cresswell’s very popular TEDx talk on “Sex and Mathematics” — funny, personable, but with only one quick personal story, in the middle, about her poor initial grade in high school math and how she didn’t let it discourage her.)

So what is mandatory for a good researcher talk for non-specialist audiences?

Narrative structure.

Your talk — or your op-ed, or your infographic, or whatever piece of content your are producing for non-specialist audiences — should have a clear narrative structure.

A story always relies on narrative structure, but narrative structure isn’t necessarily a story. Narrative structure is the underlying logic of how the pieces of your talk fit together. How you get your audience from A to B to C to D. How you get them from beginning to middle to end — and whether they come in that order, as Gore Vidal once said.

If you’re a researcher, you’re most often delivering a talk to illuminate and educate your audience. You want to do this engagingly, and a story might help you get there.

But 95 percent of your work is constructing a clear narrative structure that you then deliver clearly, with compelling facts, findings and (yes) anecdotes as illustration.

If you don’t give us that narrative structure, we might remember your stories. But not what you wanted to tell us.