21 July 2024

Telling our stories

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By Nahrizul Adib Kadri

In an NST article entitled “Many positives of palm oil untold, leading to misjudgment” published on 18 June, the author, Dato Prof Ahmad Ibrahim urged NGOs to continue discussing the benefits of palm oil. By fostering more positive conversations about this commodity, we can ensure it receives the recognition and perception it deserves.

I have to say that I fully agree with his point. So much so that I am extending this call to all my fellow scientists and researchers too, that we all must have basic storytelling skills to make our work more relatable, and thus seen as impactful, to the public.

According to various studies, developing storytelling skills can actually enhance the public’s understanding and engagement with scientific concepts. For example, a study published in 2023 in the Frontiers in Communication journal demonstrated that storytelling could increase public engagement with science. A collaborative model of science-in-action video storytelling reached over 180 million potential viewers on various platforms, including Netflix, proving the effectiveness of this approach in making scientists relatable.

The research also indicated that storytelling could significantly improve public perceptions of scientists as relatable and trustworthy. In a survey, undergraduate students who participated in video storytelling processes reported increased relatability to both scientists and science.

Also, a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2018 found cognitive changes in the brain when exposed to scientific contents presented through storytelling. Cognitive studies have shown that storytelling activates our brain in a way that enhances memory and understanding. This neural response is critical for effective science communication, as it helps the audience to better understand and retain scientific information.

But how can we enhance storytelling skills, particularly in the context of science communication? I am suggesting the following, albeit minimum, strategies:

  1. Storytelling workshops: Organise workshops that focus on storytelling techniques, such as the story spine structure, dialogue impersonation, and using personal anecdotes. At the very least, divide our scientific content into three parts: setup, conflict, and resolution.

For example, a researcher could start by setting up the context of their study (setup), explain the challenges or questions they faced (conflict), and conclude with their findings or solutions (resolution). This structure not only makes the content more engaging but also helps the audience follow the narrative more easily.

  1. Storytelling in social media: Utilise social media platforms to teach and practice storytelling. This can include taking photos, and creating videos and podcasts that incorporate storytelling techniques.

For instance, photos on Instagram must follow basic composition techniques like leading lines and the rule of thirds. Short videos for Instagram Reels and TikTok should follow storytelling techniques with a clear hook, climax, and denouement or call-to-action. An example could be a scientist explaining their research on climate change in a 60-second clip, starting with a compelling question (hook), presenting key findings (climax), and ending with a call-to-action for viewers to reduce their carbon footprint.

  1. Storytelling in public engagement: This can include using storytelling to communicate complex scientific concepts to the general public, to foster better public understanding and engagement with science.

Make it compulsory, for example, for research grant holders to appear on TV talk shows or hold public engagement events to make their findings public. A researcher who has received funding to study renewable energy could be required to discuss their findings on Selamat Pagi Malaysia on TV1 or Malaysia Hari Ini on TV3, explaining their work in a way that is understandable and interesting to the general public. This approach ensures that scientific discoveries not just reach a wider audience, but also become part of public discourse.

By implementing these and other relevant strategies, I believe any researchers and scientists can develop their storytelling skills and apply them effectively everywhere. This can then lead to improved public understanding of scientific concepts, and enhanced public engagement with science.

In the face of declining interest in STEM subjects, be it in the total numbers of high school students taking science subjects or university students enrolling in STEM-based degree courses, perhaps better storytelling skills is the option we should be trying out in order to find out the answer that we are looking for.

Let us all become better storytellers and thus making science more accessible, relatable, and exciting for everyone.

After all, each one of us has (science) stories to tell, don’t we?


The author is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and former Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya. He currently teaches an elective course called “Introduction to Journalism and Storytelling in Digital Age”, open to all UM students. He may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my