Storytelling Humanizes Your Life Science Experiences to Help You Stand Out in the Workplace
To succeed in a career in life science – or any field – learn to communicate optimally about your work, especially your successes, the initiative you’ve taken and the problems you’ve solved, the people you’ve helped. In life science communication, sometimes the “science” aspect can overpower the “life” aspect. But we can re-humanize life science communication through stories, which provide “an innate, perhaps definitive, dimension of what it means to be human,” according to blogger Phoebe Cohen.
Not only can we humanize with storytelling; we can use stories to connect. The human brain is wired for narrative; we think in story form, as revealed in Lisa Cron’s book, WIRED FOR STORY: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence. Stories help us make an emotional and empathetic connection because they are relatable. Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaker cited stories as up to 22 times more memorable than facts and their “real-life” aspect makes messages more credible. Those who tell stories well are seen as effective communicators and are well-positioned to attain support and partners for their work.
How might you as a life scientist deploy storytelling to communicate about your work? Let’s look at some ways:
- Presenting your research: Many professionals in the life sciences will be invited at some point to deliver a presentation about their research. Saarah Kuzay tells a tale of having given 100 formal and semi-formal presentations about her research projects while simultaneously questioning why anyone should listen to her speeches. After learning at a science-communication workshop to integrate stories into her talks, Kuzay felt successful enough to remark: “Transforming research into a personal story is powerful and creative art.”
- Getting research cited more often: Stories offer a unique research advantage. After analyzing 732 scientific abstracts from 19 journals for narrative style, scholars Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, and Terrie Klinger concluded that articles with narrative-based abstracts were cited more often.
- Selling and marketing: Marketers in all industries have increasingly recognized and applied the value of storytelling in sales and marketing over the past 15 years or so; life sciences is no exception. Far more than data alone, stories connect you to customers and enable you to build trust with them. Stories paint vivid pictures in the recipient’s mind, enabling customers to visualize how your product or service will benefit them. You will likely stand out since others will be selling with data. Case studies and patient stories comprise common uses of story in sales and, marketing, as well as branding. “Publishing a case study is your chance to boost your brand’s authority in the life sciences industry,” Lara Warneck affirms on LabiotechReach.
- Getting research funded: While those involved in selling and marketing are just one subset of life science professionals, that subset expands when considering those who need to sell their research to grantmakers and foundations to attain funding. How will people benefit from your research? Tell one or more stories that show the human impact and outcomes of your work.
- Winning the next opportunity, whether internal or external: Your past performance and accomplishments play a huge role in landing a new job or advancing in your current role. Employers assume you will achieve for them what you did for past employers. Whether in networking situations or job interviews, describing your accomplishments in story form portrays you as an effective communicator and positions you strongly for the next opportunity. Princeton neuroscience research by Uri Hasson in 2012 shows actual “brain synching” between storyteller and listener, a perfect setup for connecting with an interviewer through stories.
Techniques to Tell the Tale
To integrate storytelling into the ways you talk about your work, consider these expert tips:
- Develop a feel for what effective science storytelling looks like. Lots of examples are available (though not all of the science is life science) in the form of podcasts. Blogs, and other stories in print form. Just a few examples include Story Collider , Stories in Science , and Radiolab’s podcast.
- Adapt storytelling strategies from the film world. That’s what integrative-biology grad student Sara ElShafie did, taking a chance on contacting Pixar Animation Studios when she sought to produce a “Science Through Narrative” seminar. Two Pixar artists agreed to show her how to reframe research into a character-rich story of overcoming obstacles. Pixar’s well-known 22 Rules for Storytelling provides tips life science professionals can adapt.
- Prioritize people over data and solutions over problems. “Your work is about the people whose lives you impact every day,” Soledad O’Brien, founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group points out. “Tell their stories.” Audiences are more inspired by solutions than problems.
- Keep stories concise, focused, simple and relevant. ElShafie also suggests making content relatable instead of dumbing it down. She also advises teasing out the complexity of a story gradually. “Science communication is a process of distilling the most salient information from a complex body of work into the most concise and compelling story possible for a given audience,” she writes. She adds that it’s better to build complexity as the story progresses than to frontload it with overwhelming information.
One more selling point about storytelling to communicate science: It’s fun. So says Phoebe Cohen, adding, “we are science. It’s refreshing to embrace that, and gratifying to hear how the stories we tell about our own lives resonate with others.“