The art of storytelling in synthetic biology: an interview with Karl Schmieder
Synthetic biology is a field full of exciting stories. Communicating these stories to each other and to the general public is often part of the daily routine for a synthetic biologist, regardless of career status and seniority. I asked Karl Schmieder, a seasoned communications and strategy consultant in biotechnology and synthetic biology, how to engage in and improve our storytelling.
Kostas Vavitsas: How did you enter the science communication business?
Karl Schmieder: I was terrible at benchwork but excited about biotechnology.
As a university student, I thought I was going to be a surgeon and a writer. After seeing Herb Boyer (the founder of Genentech) on the cover of Time Magazine, I became obsessed with biotechnology and focused on learning everything I could about molecular biology. I could tell biotech was the future, so I was ready to go all-in. But it wasn’t until my senior year and while completing a Master’s, I realized I was terrible at labwork. My experiments never worked. It was depressing. Still, I pressed on, completed the Master’s, and started writing.
While completing a Master’s in creative writing, I landed a job in a strategic consulting firm where a light bulb went off. I thought that there might be an opportunity for me to consult and write about biotech.
I landed in a public relations firm helping pharmaceutical companies launch their products. After a few years, I joined a firm focused on emerging biotech companies. There, I was lucky to work with people in finance, venture capitalists, technologists, and designers and learned how they each approached and reacted to storytelling.
I learned there was a great opportunity to help life sciences companies tell their stories. So, I started my own firm and today focus on strategy and storytelling for biotech and synthetic biology companies. I also train non-scientists on the impact of synthetic biology on their businesses.
Kostas: What are the skills you need to do this job?
You need to be curious. You need to listen. You need to know how to simplify the complex. And you need to know how to tell an engaging story.
Telling a good story is the number one skill. Understanding the science behind that story is a given. You have to understand it, simplify it, and turn into a story that people find interesting.
Today, we have so many opportunities to tell science story. You can write and publish on multiple channels. You can create podcasts and videos. You can post to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube. Each offers the opportunity to reach an audience with your story.
If you are trained as a scientist, you’ve already done the hardest work. Learning how to communicate effectively and tell science stories requires work for sure, but it’s very different from studying biochemistry and the inner workings of a cell.
When I started my career, many of the people I worked with were trained as journalists or communicators but they had no science background. It was harder for them to understand the science stories than it was for the scientists I worked with to tell the stories.
Business skills help as well. Knowing who you’re talking to and how to pitch or sell are great skills to have.
Kostas: How can you tell a scientific story?
Karl: People need to remember that their audience is other people. And people want to hear stories because our brains are wired for storytelling. For that reason, it is important to keep is simple, surprise people, be emotional, and reveal our own weaknesses and doubts. That includes the failures in the research, the challenges in the business.
To pull people into your story, present a problem, a challenge, a what if? Ask a question. People want to hear the rest.
Scientific research is already presented this way. Papers start with a hypothesis. That hypothesis is the challenge. The what if? If you make this more tangible, bringing it into the real world, it gets people thinking.
Then figure out the core of the story, the most important thing you want your audience to remember. It should be simple but not simplistic. The ideal is not a soundbite. The ideal is a proverb.
But remember, the science is going to be new to most audiences, so you have to find ways to help people understand and remember. Give examples. Be concrete. Give them reasons to believe in what you’re doing.
Like I said before, don’t be afraid of being emotional. There’s a reason why you’re doing your research. You’re trying to put together a puzzle, to add to human knowledge. It’s exciting. Let your audience know how excited you are.
We need to think a lot about the story of our science, because this is what’s going to engage the audience. People want to hear stories.
Kostas: Do you think scientists are good storytellers?
Karl: There’s always room for improvement. Scientists are trained to tell stories a certain way. It’s often — and I’m sorry to generalize — focused on the research, publishing, grants. It’s typically aimed at peers not the general population. But once you learn to tell a better story, the world opens up. There are a lot of opportunities to get your story out in the world. This is more important than ever.
In the United States, the science budget as a percentage of the GDP has dropped and continues to drop. I think one of the reasons is that scientists are not telling their stories to everybody – especially elected officials. Most elected officials are not scientists and they have no idea why spending public money on basic science and research is so important. Investments in basic research are the creators of technology and jobs. It’s an important message that we need to tell over and over again.
It’s worth mentioning that those of us in the life sciences are unfortunately cursed by what we know. The curse of knowledge is real. We think everyone will — or should — understand what we do or what we know. That means we live in our own bubble, a scientific bubble. The curse of knowledge is hard to avoid because we’re often surrounded by other scientists. They understand our stories, but they’re not the rest of the world. So, scientists, no matter how good you are at telling your stories to your peers, get out and tell them to the rest of the world.
Kostas: Let’s move to synthetic biology. What are the particulars of storytelling in this field?
Karl: Synthetic biology is incredibly exciting. I am so inspired by all the work being done, and have been fortunate to learn from and work with several of the pioneers and leaders defining the field.
Synthetic biology has all the elements for great storytelling: heroes, villains, seemingly insurmountable challenges, the opportunity for profit and social change, and, if we do it right, the ability to change the world.
Most of us have already been touched by the products of biotechnology. We’re at a stage where biotech-slash-synbio stories are still very new. The design and production of consumer products with synthetic biology gives manufacturers the opportunity to tell sustainability stories that differentiate them. People want to brag about their spider silk tie or skateboard, their algae-produced sneakers, or the yeast-brewed terpenes flavoring their cannabis. As biological design thinking and bio manufacturing become more widespread, the stories will change.
Synthetic biologists need to tell stories that get away from their technologies and start from a place where there is common ground with their audiences, where benefits are tangible. Consumers generally don’t care about the technology used to make the product. Few people care how Apple assembles its iPhone. They care that it works.
By telling emotional stories we can help to dispel the fears around genetically modified organisms or the use of synthetic biology to brew new materials.
My experience has been that non-technical audiences are excited by the possibilities that synthetic biology offers. They are intrigued by the idea of biological design and manufacturing. The challenge is pulling more non-technical audiences into the stories and expanding our story space.
Personally, when speaking to non-scientists about synthetic biology, I like to talk about the creation of our atmosphere by microorganisms. I point out brewing and fermentation were instrumental in the rise of civilization. I’ve found those topics are useful to engage. Then, when I move my story from brewing beer to brewing proteins as a way to save the rainforests, people wonder how that would work. It sparks a dialogue and to me that’s the road to understanding and getting people as excited as we are.
Kostas: What about overhyping and synthetic biology?
Karl: We need to be careful. There is a strong, anti-GMO contingent in the climate change movement. People are scared of GM food. Not to mention the words synthetic and biology don’t belong together. Biology is beautiful. Synthetic is fake. We need to be prepared for the pushback.
There also is an inevitable hype cycle associated with every technology. We haven’t hit the synthetic biology hype cycle yet. But it’s coming. Be prepared.
Kostas: As a last question, I will ask you to give a pro communications tip to different kinds of people. Let’s start with an imaginary biotech company.
Karl: Know who you’re talking to. Tell a memorable story.
Kostas: Academic researcher
Karl: I rarely work with academics, so it’s a harder answer for me. But I’d say join Toastmasters to learn how to speak to a general audience. Read a book on screenwriting like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Kostas: A biotech student
Karl: Learn to tell a story. If you get the chance, take public speaking and make your science part of your talks.
Kostas: And a science journalist.
Karl: Do your homework Try to understand the science before you try to tell the story. Then, tell a great story.
Karl Schmieder M.S./M.F.A. is an award-winning writer and founder and CEO of messagingLAB, a strategy and marketing communications firm that has worked with leading life sciences companies for 20 years. He is the author of WHAT’S YOUR BIO STRATEGY? PREPARING YOUR BUSINESS FOR SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY. He received his Master’s in Biochemistry from UC Riverside and a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing from the Naropa Institute. Karl is a co-founder of New Bio City, a New York City-based organization pushing cities to adopt biotechnology.