Exciting Storytelling

I recently ran a workshop for my ExCiteS colleagues about storytelling skills for communicating the incredible things they are doing, and I’d like to tell you all about it here.


For me personally, storytelling is a deep part of who I am. To me, all scientific concepts are a story: something happens. And, invariably, something happens because of some conditions being present, something changing, other things happening nearby to cause it.

I learned to write by writing stories (I think my first, when I was 5 or 6, was about Thomas the Tank Engine going up a hill and having a chat with the Sun). Historically, human beings have passed on news, spread religions, taught (good or bad) morals, and explained the constellations by telling stories.

I’m in the ECSA Storytelling Working Group, which is run by Andrea Troncosco and which wrote the EU-Citizen.Science short course on Storytelling for Citizen Science. We’re currently planning to host a public talk by Affelia Wibisono. I came across Affelia in around 2019 when I helped out with the UCL Physics and Astronomy department’s ORBYTS scheme, which sends PhD students into local schools to do astronomy citizen science projects with school pupils. Affelia gave us one of the calmest and most brilliant talks I have ever heard. They did a very illuminating exercise with us, getting us all to imagine witnessing and investigating an astronomical phenomenon, and asking us a series of questions about it – then, after we were full of ideas, translating all those ideas into sections of an academic paper! I have really wanted the Working Group to hear that talk, so I was very happy recently when I contacted Affelia and they said they’d be happy to give us such a talk. It will be on 16th June at 2pm BST, 3pm CEST. You’ll be welcome to join – register here!

But I also wanted to do something slightly similar for my colleagues, and so when ECSAnVis organised a writing retreat, I made an attempt. I’m not sure how well I pulled it off, but it was the first time I or they had done such a thing, and we all have to start somewhere.

Storytelling and Anthropology: a caveat

My anthropologist colleagues are in a specific situation which requires some sensitivity: a scientist investigating some physics or chemistry concept is likely to (mostly) just be telling their own story, but an anthropologist will be telling other people’s stories. And this has, all too often, been done inaccurately or even harmfully. I knew that the last thing my ECSAnVis colleagues would want is to replicate that. I’m currently reading “Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science” by Jessica Hernandez, and its dedication reads: “For our Indigenous pueblos, by our Indigenous pueblos. May we continue to write and tell our stories, instead of our stories being written and told for us.”

It is vital to tell others’ stories respectfully, accurately, and mindfully of whether what you say might lead to risk or oppression – or, better still, to let them tell their own. I leave this part to my colleagues: what stories they tell is not something I can help with, but the how, perhaps I can. Plus, every anthropologist will also have their own story: how they became interested in the subject, what they did to study it, where they went, who they met, what they learned, and, perhaps what the reader will most want to know – what it was like. What’s it like in those places that most of us never visit? The people most of us will never meet, what do they do and say and care about? What was surprising, moving, and what did everybody really want to do with their new learning? These things may not sound very scientific (although I personally dislike the notion that storytelling, and other forms of human feeling and connection, necessarily means unscientific) – but they matter. And I’d like more people to hear about them.

The Workshop

I ran this workshop over Zoom, though all but two other ExCiteS people were in a meeting room. The hybrid structure is far harder to sort out than one entirely face-to-face or entirely online, but we managed it. As I began, I issued very explicit instructions that people could either work together or alone depending on what they felt most comfortable with (I was one of those kids who hated group work, but many people are the reverse).

I ran the following sections, which will appear as the next few headings in this post:

  • Short warm-up
  • Academic writing versus storytelling: a discussion
  • “Tiny Science” – extremely short stories
  • What makes a good story beginning, middle and end?
  • Longer exercise: ExCiteS goes to Enceladus!

Because I only had an hour (and my colleagues were having a chaotic day), I decided to pitch most of these as relatively humorous. I wasn’t setting any assignments, I just wanted to get them thinking at this stage.

The warm-up

I began with a game I’d got out of the children’s book “What Katy Did At School” (the sequel to the famous “What Katy Did” by Susan Coolidge), which was called “Word and Question”, and which my friends, sister and I had liked playing for years. Everyone takes a slip of paper, writes a word at the top, folds it over, and passes it to the person on their left (or right). This person writes a question, folds it over, and passes it on again, perhaps elaborating the shuffle. The third person opens it up. In the book, the next task is to write a poem which answers the question and includes the word. There wasn’t time or need for a poem, so I just asked for a sentence, or haiku if people preferred.

(For the two other remote people, I asked them to just message me on Slack with their words and questions, and wrote one of each of my own too. I then messaged them back, each with a word from the other and question from me or vice versa. I had to concentrate hard to make sure I did everything the right way round! I worked in schools for about three years, and one of the skills I learned was to think on my feet and come up with instant tasks and workarounds!)

As you can imagine, it led to some drollness and some remarkable beauty. We had an optional Padlet, and I can’t resist reproducing some here:

Word: Slack
Question: What is the meaning of life?
Sentence: you will discover it when you manage to use hashtags on slack

Two others came without the word or question listed, but we can guess …

the coffee bandit
is a total maverick
he takes two sugars

I am travelling
always here and now it
strikes me as fantastic

The point of this warm-up was to let people use their humour and imaginations, relax, work as a team and draw inspiration from each other. I think they did it brilliantly!

Academic writing versus storytelling: a discussion

I began this exercise by giving everyone a quick break while I read out a passage I’d liked from Chris Lintott’s book “The Crowd and the Cosmos: Adventures in the Zooniverse”. It described his visit to Antarctica for the Zooniverse project PenguinWatch (which Muki and I and lots of people love, and which we always show our students for their first Introduction to Citizen Science and Scientific Crowdsourcing course practical). It described many entertaining facts and events: that penguins stink, especially their droppings; how the Antarctica postal service works; and the process of actually getting hold of and correctly packaging some penguin excreta to send to a laboratory half a planet away – this was to investigate why some penguins seem to be adapting well to a changing diet (probably caused by climate change) and some do not. The scientists were working aboard a cruise ship with very small cabins and what appears to have been a rather interconnected air filtration system. It was with slow horror, hilariously described by Chris, that he and his colleague Tom realised that the smell of the excreta they were packaging had somehow got into the entire ship’s air conditioning. But there was a serious point here: “The fact that we’d rushed to treat the samples before the smell contaminated a cruise ship won’t ever be mentioned in a scientific paper,” Chris writes. “The careful day-to-day diplomacy that ensured that a ship employed on quite some other purpose delivered the team to each of their cameras is reflected in an unbroken data series, but won’t ever be commented on in formal publication.”

To me, this is really quite sad and a loss to science, and I was curious to know what my colleagues thought. I honestly feel that science reporting that just presents the results is incomplete; I want to know the circumstances and difficulties and attitudes and wider logistics as well. Some academic writing seems to me almost to remove the human, in a well-meant attempt to sound unbiased and to remove unnecessary details. The trouble is, that isn’t the way I think or learn or act. I like to have a context. But I’m no great scientist. What do you think?

So our next exercise was to make a list together of ways storytelling differed from – or was similar to – paper-writing. Most researchers seem (to me) to speak the language of academic papers very fluently, as if they’d learned it early in life. I don’t intend to try and take that away from them, but rather to encourage us all to develop additional languages. Many researchers are brilliant at both; I still struggle with paper-writing.

“The paper gives away the plot,” came a voice as soon as I asked for feedback. I hadn’t even thought of that, and thought it was a brilliant point.

The written-down comments reported:

  • “Academic papers avoid ‘hooks’ and there is no ‘whodoneit’ style writing with a final reveal. The information on what is going to be shared is stated from the start.”
  • “There are no ‘heros’ and the ‘view from nowhere’ style of writing mean that we know very little about the protagonist of the paper.”

But, also, a similarity:

  • “If it’s not interesting and gaining the reader’s attention or give them a reason to use it, it will not be used.”

So perhaps my feeling about academic papers is a little unfair. Some, or perhaps lots, do include storytelling and contextualising, especially in the introduction.

Tiny Science

As a teenager, I came across a quote I loved. I don’t know if it makes a similar impression on other people, but here it is:

“From a whisper in a forest to the felling of a tree, ’tis all movement.” – Charles Sherrington

To me, any scientific process is something happening, which means something changing, which requires movement (yes, even for social science – for example, even something as ethereal as ideas or learning require tiny movements of matter and energy in our neurons! Not to mention electronics, or simple sound waves, involved in conveying information from one person to another).

I showed my colleagues that quote and gave some examples:

  • A star is born, shines, and becomes a black hole
  • A white blood cell engulphs a bacterium
  • A person learns to use Sapelli
  • A policy maker engages with CS and writes a new law
  • A photon travels from the Sun to the Earth
  • Henri Bequerel discovers radioactivity by accident

I then showed my colleagues a cartoon I enjoy, and which is true for me:

“How Most People View Their Vacation vs How Scientists View Their Vacation” by UnearthedComics and Sara Zimmerman, 2013

I asked them to take any object in the room, and to write a tiny story – one to three sentences – on how it came to be there. Such an object might be the coffee they are drinking, a piece of furniture, or a patch of sunlight that had come in through the window.

I offered two examples:

My “Tiny Science” slide

Here are two entries from the Padlet:

The pen

pen – ink made
plastic melted
put together
moved to human hand

The key

This key came from the sky. The metal was created in the reactive belly of a star which somehow made its way to become part of the earth. Lying in darkness for billions of years, it was one day dug up, saw a human face, squashed and moulded, handed from hand-to-hand, character to character to now end up in my pocket

The point of this section was to encourage everyone to see everything as having a tantalising story, one way or another – which, when you think about it, it does! And to know that you do not have to write an epic in order to find or make it interesting.

What makes a good story, beginning, middle and end?

I think this was the hardest part of the session, and definitely one whose delivery I need to work on (or to replace with something else) if I’m to give a similar workshop! Anyway, the point was now to start dreaming big, and think about specific storytelling techniques, the components that make up a longer story.

I encouraged people to talk to each other for a few minutes and then give me feedback (this is often much better for eliciting responses than asking for immediate feedback!). We ended up not making lists in Padlet as people were getting a bit busy, so I’ll share the slides I made in advance here.

(I had begun with just a list, but then I began to feel that some or most points connected to each other directly and did it as diagrams instead! Whether this is more effective or interesting or not, I do not know …)

My “Story Beginnings” slide
My “Story Middles” slide. Most of these apply to the whole story. There’s probably a more official way to think about all this.
My “Story Endings” slide

My colleagues, meanwhile, were very much to the point. Here are some Padlet contributions:

Story beginnings should contain …

  • Some sort of sensory notion to get readers engrossed

Story middles (or stories as a whole) should contain …

  • The main storyline

Story endings should contain …

  • A bang!

(We did a lot of “persuasive writing” in English lessons at school, which I began to feel uneasy about once I got older and went through a phase of thinking of science as objective – I’ve since learned from ExCiteS and other sources that it often isn’t, though that’s another story. If storytelling is such a natural way to think, and if our work is so self-evidently worth knowing about, is it not perhaps dishonest to require technique? For example, to insert psychological tricks like foreshadowing, whose purposes as I understand them are to arouse interest, add mood, hold the story together better, give the reader interesting hooks and make them feel more involved and insightful? But then, we do develop a craft about most things we do, so perhaps I over-think … For me, a possible example of foreshadowing in an anthropological story would be my well-meaning friends’ Facebook posts about how humans are terrible and the world would be better off without them, and that we should cordon off areas of rainforest to be pristine wilderness … which turns out to be an ideal which at best overlooks the Indigenous people who are custodians of their environment, and at worst puts them in danger.)

ExCiteS Goes to Enceladus

This final exercise was to use 10 examples of storytelling technique to write a story about ourselves – not necessarily a serious one! I decided that ExCiteS had gone on a field trip in a rocket to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is a delightful little object in space: despite being only 500km in diameter and receiving around 1% of the solar radiation Earth does, it’s warm enough to have a liquid ocean, which it periodically spouts into space as geysers, creating Saturn’s E-ring. (My long-ago MSc thesis was about what generates this heat. It’s mostly because of tidal forces between it, other moons and Saturn, and the fact that its orbit is slightly elliptical.) It would be a thrilling adventure for us all to jump in a rocket with our equipment and go to investigate a geyser on this little moon, so – and I think this may have been inspired by Affelia’s talk to ORBYTS – I asked my colleagues to complete the following sentences, using the techniques in square brackets:

1. UCL ExCiteS were going to Enceladus. They packed their belongings and climbed into their comfortable rocket together. They hoped to … [SET THE SCENE]

2. The rocket launched! Everyone felt very heavy, but thrilled. As the rocket rose, they saw the blue marble of their planet Earth. It looked … [SENSATIONS]

3. On the way, [someone at ExCiteS – who?] said something surprising. They said … [PLOT; GET TO KNOW THE CHARACTERS]

4. In space, there was no gravity, so everyone was floating around. One consequence of this was … [INTERESTING DETAIL]

5. During the long journey, one member of ExCiteS [who?] noticed that something seemed to have gone wrong. It seemed that … [FORESHADOWING]

6. Finally, they saw Saturn with its beautiful rings, and the rocket came near to Enceladus! Everyone felt … [IDENTIFY WITH CHARACTERS]

7. The rocket landed safely, near a geyser. Everyone donned their space suits and went to investigate. To do their experiments, they brought with them … [DETAILS; HOPES; CONNECTION; PURPOSE]

8. It was very exciting doing this experiment! They … [EXCITING ACTION]

9. But unluckily, the person in point 5 was right – something had gone wrong. It was … [CLIMAX]

10. Fortunately, everyone escaped unharmed and Muki launched the rocket to get everyone home. ExCiteS were all very relieved. They had learned that … [GREATER MEANING, LEARNING]

One of my “ExCiteS Goes to Enceladus” slides

I provided a Google document and asked each individual or group – however they chose to work – to copy and paste these prompts to use. However, they did it as a collective whole. At least one of my colleagues evidently has an ironic sense of humour. The result was, as Niels Bohr would have said, most interesting:

“1. UCL ExCiteS were going to Enceladus. They packed their belongings and climbed into their comfortable rocket together. They hoped to destabilise society and create chaos by designing a very dangerous sapelli project for tracking water fountains on Enceladus with the local fairies. They also secretly wanted adventure and to colonise Enceladus. But at the end of the writing retreat it WOULDN’T BE A SECRET ANY MORE

2. The rocket launched! Everyone felt very heavy, but thrilled. As the rocket rose, they saw the blue marble of their planet Earth. It looked stupid and little and far. So much fuss for such a small thing. We don’t need it anyway, they chortled as they flew further away. It was then they realised the true meaning of ExCiteS – to destroy the Earth.

3. On the way, AliceS said something surprising. They said “I invented the question mark and how to give editing access to online documents”. Unfortunately my fur coat was too tight this morning and my thoughts fell out.

4. In space, there was no gravity, so everyone was floating around. One consequence of this was all the tea in their pockets fell out. We could play 3D sports like underwater rugby! And 3D maps would make a lot more sense!

5. During the long journey, one member of ExCiteS Hannah noticed that something seemed to have gone wrong. It seemed that the falange was making a funny noise, it was a strange rattling that sounded like someone trying to open the door. Who could be here Muki wondered? Muki then ate a sandwich.

6. Finally, they saw Saturn with its beautiful rings, and the rocket came near to Enceladus! Everyone felt like Elton John

7. The rocket landed safely, near a geyser. Everyone donned their space suits and went to investigate. To do their experiments, they brought with them … a huge bag of space snacks including moon bars and space cola; fortune; and a future version of Sapelli Viewer which miraculously worked without any bugs but JOe was not even here so it wasn’t even a use of our money or gps coordinates. GPS stands for GREAT PRACTICAL SCIENCE.

And GNSS stands for?: please continue… GREAT NORTHERN SQUID SCIENCE

8. It was very exciting doing this experiment! They all had an  upside down picnic and listened to Major Tom, dancing the hulahula while catching their food before it got vaporised by solar radiation. A fox was there dancing while chasing ducks. This duck thing becomes apparent later.

9. But unluckily, the person in point 3 was right – something had gone wrong. It was the realisation that seven giraffes had somehow ended up in the luggage hold, and they were hangry. Are they supposed to be blue? Simon wondered But then did Simon even know what blue was, he thought a lot about this, he wasn’t always as busy as he said he was.

10. Fortunately, everyone escaped unharmed and Muki launched the rocket to get everyone home. ExCiteS were all very relieved. They had learned that only certain ducks can fly, some of them find it more challenging, but those that do fly can save the earth using Sapelli! Even when this isn’t the intention.”

Conclusions and Feedback

My thoughts from the above – when I’d stopped laughing, which took a long time! – were a mixture of the following possibilities: a) I hadn’t taught the final session very effectively, b) I had taught it fine, but my colleagues needed a break, c) the fun was the important thing, and so what if the story hadn’t exactly gone as I’d imagined? My colleagues are mostly not astronomers (though Fabien is a planetary scientist!) and wanted to do it their way, which isn’t a problem or d) I was focusing on the wrong things, and ExCiteS needs other things. Anyway, the verbal feedback I got about the session was extremely kind, and people assured me they had fun.

I did receive a very useful message afterwards: It would have been especially valuable to think about how to apply all this to writing about ECSAnVis specifically. I had avoided this because I only had an hour for my session on what was already a very action-packed day. There are many delicate issues to think about in ExCiteS’ work that I felt needed longer to address, so my plan that day was merely to plant some seeds. But perhaps I therefore ended up missing the main point. Perhaps I should have immediately focused on the important thing – many people learn best that way. However, I hope some of my colleagues will be up for a few more storytelling workshops, where we can try to take it all further. They have stories which I cannot tell, and I always want more of them!

I left the Padlet open for my colleagues to comment further. I want to end with two nice, thought-provoking Padlet answers:

What do people not know about ExCiteS work? What snippets, sensations, sights, activities, new ideas, things people have said/done, etc might surprise/interest them?

  • How most of the time it doesn’t work! But the moments where it does is absolute magic.

What would you really like our readers to care about and learn regarding ECSAnVis or ExCiteS generally?

  • That we are trying to make ourselves defunct.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be glad to know your thoughts whether you were a participant in that session or not!

If you are an anthropologist or scientist, please tell your stories. I promise, people will find them interesting.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 694767 and ERC-2015-AdG).

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