Why Narrative Works in Science Communication

In a previous post, I talked about why Scientific data itself isn’t enough to change public opinions on science. How then do scientists convince the public to accept established truths?  If you’ve already read the previous article about how to not isolate your audience, it’s time to work on a proven method of communicating science: narrative.  Narrative, or using stories, is a powerful way for scientists to communicate to the public.  In this article, I explain why.


Narratives are Universal

From old cave paintings thousands of years old to latest TV drama, narratives have evolved with humans.  In fact, telling stories is a defining aspect of humanity.  According to this article: “Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history.” I dare you to find any country whose culture does not include fables, legends, or myths.  Not everyone understands complicated scientific concepts, but they do understand and recognize stories.

mirror neuron

Narratives Create Empathy and Teach

Believe it or not, there is scientifically grounded evidence that supports the power of storytelling.  Ever heard of the brain’s mirror neuron system?  In a nutshell, the neurons that fire in my brain when I perform a task (for example, picking up a pencil) are the same ones that also fire when I see someone else perform the same task.  The mirror neuron system is the reason why humans have, and continue to, evolve.  By watching others perform a task, we can then mimic that task, and in doing so, learn.  As science communicators, it is imperative to teach your audience if you are looking for grant money, policy change, or to dispel misinformation. Narratives are more powerful than data at communicating information because they cause the brain’s mirror neuron system to fire.

Stories also allows us to empathise with others.  When we see someone sad, we can understand their distress thanks to our mirror neurons.  Reading a narrative creates the same effect, called narrative transport.  Data on the other hand, doesn’t cause our mirror neuron system to fire (see my previous post on data for more).  Why should we care about empathy?  Empathy helps us develop our social knowledge and get along better with others.  We learn about how to live in a social world through stories.  In science communication, we can use this knowledge to promote social norms regarding things such as health or environmental stewardship.

Narratives are Persuasive

For science communicators, narrative is a powerful tool for persuading others to adopt healthier lifestyles, become more environmentally conscience, or create policy change.  A study done by Emily Moyer-Gusé found that narratives in the form of entertainment are more persuasive than overtly persuasive messages.  Why is this so? As mentioned earlier, narratives allow a reader to be transported into a story.  While engaged in a story, the audience is less likely to resist the message.  Another study found that the more transported a reader is into a story, the more likely they are to accept the main message.

By now, perhaps you’re thinking that I am arguing for stories such as those in children’s books.  That’s not the case.  Non-fiction narratives in fact were found to create equal amounts of transport as fiction narratives.  

How You Can use Narrative 

Now that you know the power of storytelling in communicating science, how can you use this in your field?  Some of the most effective science articles I read in the news are structured like stories.  They start with a person’s plight, then go on to explain the science (ie: cancer), then return back to the person.  To you, the data you collect or research may tell a story, but that’s not the case for a general. audience.  People like stories because they give patterns and meaning to your data.  Don’t leave the human aspect out of your science communication.

Have you ever used storytelling while communicating science?  Share your stories in the comment section below.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.  Next time, I’ll talk dig into the messy, tangled web where science and politics overlap. Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.


One thought on “Why Narrative Works in Science Communication

  1. Pingback: Why Narrative Works In Science Communication: Part II – Let's Talk Science

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