On Story Telling
Last Monday night I took the mic at a Toronto bar. The whole second floor was full of conservation scientists in town for the North American Congress for Conservation Biology, the music from below thumped into our enclave, and we settled in with local beers to listen to stories of childhood tree forts, surfers tying themselves in kelp like sea otters, and daylilies dug from the lot where a great-grandmother’s garden once grew. This was Plant Love Stories Live — a storytelling event that grew out of a blog that grew out of a tiny conversation in January between a group of postdocs in a hotel conference room who were maybe a little bit burnt out from discussing how to impact policy and what progress we’d made on a major literature review.
Plant Love Stories is a collection of personal stories about how plants have shaped our lives. As conservation researchers, we often see plants as a backdrop, a hazy, nondescript habitat for the charismatic megafauna. And yet, almost everyone has a story about a plant — the venus fly trap you didn’t realize needed water as well as flies, the delicious fruitiness of fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes, the unexpected utility of an alder tree in the middle of a fieldwork disaster. Since its launch on Valentine’s Day 2018, Plant Love Stories has published weekly stories from plant ecologists, scientists who are stridently not-botanists, artists, parents, kids, professors, and undergraduates. The beloved plants are house plants, garden plants, greenhouse plants, wild plants, trees, seeds, tattoos, and million-year-old fossils. The growing collection of love stories reminds us that we all share emotional connections to wild, growing things.
Full disclosure: I am among the Plant Love Stories cofounders. I was one of the postdocs in the hotel conference room in January — basically wilting in my seat from a long week of trainings and meetings and panels — when Dr. Becky Barak animatedly exclaimed “we need plant love stories!” Barak knows about the power of storytelling. In 2016 she delivered an amazing talk titled ‘Big Green Things Start Tiny’ as a part of the Ecological Society of America’s ‘Up-Goer Five Challenge: Using Common Language to Communicate Your Science to the Public.’ Limited to only the 1,000 most commonly used English words, Barak and the other presenters found creative language to express complicated theories, interactions, and results in memorable and entertaining talks. This session was especially memorable for me because I was taking copious notes. I was a PLOS Ecology Reporting Fellow at ESA 2016 — I had pitched writing about the Up-Goer session in my Reporting Fellowship application, and ESA 2016 was my first experience blogging for PLOS.*
Ultimately, I wrote “Science Communication, Simple Words, and Story Telling at ESA 2016” a post about Up-Goer Five, language, and an ESA Special Session titled ‘Engaging with the Wider World: True Tales Told Live.’ I remember this event as a cross between The Moth and casual office hours with your favorite professor or TA. Four scientists shared stories on the theme of engagement. There were no notes or slides, I’m not even sure if they were sitting in chairs or just perched at the edge of a stage, I mostly remember it feeling very intimate. On the PLOS Ecology blog I wrote “There was a real sense of craving in the audience as we watched these ecologists talking about science communication. We want more examples of successful science communication, and more opportunities to practice these skills ourselves.” I did not realize how personal, or prescient these words were at the time.
The “craved for” examples of successful science communication are proliferating. Storytelling is increasingly recognized as a valuable tool for communication within our scientific community — in presentations and papers — and for engaging with audiences beyond our journals and conferences. Looking inward, the 2017 paper ‘Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations’ is an amazing resource. There’s also the 2017 PNAS opinion piece, ‘Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication.’ My fellow PLOS Ecology Editor Dr. Jeff Atkins explored the 2016 paper ‘Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science’ in a blog post that dives into the importance of storytelling within the scientific community. In February 2018, PLOS Biology collected ‘Conservation stories from the front lines’ to highlight “the deeply human side of research…These narratives present peer-reviewed and robust science but also include the muddy boots and bloody knees, ravaging mosquitoes, crushing disappointment, and occasional euphoria their authors experienced.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors include Dr. Annaliese Hettinger, a storyteller at ESA 2016’s Engaging with the Wider World: True Tales Told Live, and Dr. Nick Haddad, an ESA 2016 Up-Goer Five presenter.
At ESA 2018, there will be a ComSciCon workshop: “Story-Tell Your Science with ComSciCon: The Communicating Science Workshop for Graduate Students.” I attended the incredibly rewarding three-day ComSciCon in Boston in 2015. The ESA ComSciCon workshop agenda includes a write-a-thon session “where attendees can receive expert feedback on a piece of writing from a media of their choosing, from experienced academic communicators.” The write-a-thon was one of my favorite experiences at ComSciCon: I workshopped a podcast script — though I had absolutely no podcast production experience — and I basically abandoned the idea at the end of the workshop in June 2015, tucking my notes into a folder, filing it away while I went back to fieldwork and dissertation-writing. Then, last summer, my postdoc advisor suggested my name to the organizers of TEDx Piscataqua River. I had about a week to create a pitch for a TEDx talk — while I was in the middle of preparing for ESA 2017, packing to move to Maine, and submitting my final dissertation edits. But, I had that old ComSciCon folder. I dusted off the podcast script, re-wrote it as a talk pitch, and sent it to TEDx Piscataqua River. That talk — “Botanizing with my 19th century girlfriend” — is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.**
All the little opportunities to “story-tell your science,” all the examples we see modeled in special sessions and special paper collections, they build on each other quietly in the back of our minds until suddenly we are the one holding the mic in the front of the room. Looking back at my 2016 notes, I realize that the ESA 2016 live story telling event was organized by COMPASS and the Wilburforce Foundation and recognize a Smith Fellow alumna among the speakers. Plant Love Stories Live was hosted by the David H. Smith Fellowship, the Liber Ero Fellowship, the Wilburforce Foundation, and COMPASS. It is hard not to feel like the PLOS Ecology Reporting Fellowship has magically propelled me into this surreal present — the ESA meeting where I blogged my way through the Up-Goer Five session was also the ESA meeting where I outlined my Smith Fellowship proposal. I spent so much of that week thinking about storytelling and reporting on other ecologists’ stories, I must have semi-consciously absorbed some of these lessons and ambitions to become a better storyteller myself.
And so, in Toronto last week, I found myself ready to kick off a live story telling event at a scientific conference, and all those ESA 2016 memories flooded in. Somehow it was two years later, and 2,400 miles north of ESA 2016 — all the thinking and reading and writing around storytelling that ESA 2016 sparked had become a kind of personal practice. Now, I had the mic and I had the story to tell.
- Langin, K.M., 2017. Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations. The Condor, 119(2), pp.321-326.
- Martinez-Conde, S. and Macknik, S.L., 2017. Opinion: Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), pp.8127-8129.
- Gross L, Hettinger A, Moore JW, Neeley L (2018) Conservation stories from the front lines. PLoS Biol 16(2): e2005226. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2005226
*A quick search through my documents folder unearthed my original pitch: “In addition to the traditional sessions, the Ignite 1 Up Goer Five session will be an amazing exploration of science communication itself: will the 1,000 most common words in the English language lead to clarity or confusion? Is this an effective strategy for reaching the general public or a fun stunt that will baffle even fellow ecologists?”
** Aside from co-founding Plant Love Stories of course! Please submit your plant love stories!