Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking by Olson, Barton and Palermo

Connection Book cover Scientists want to communicate their findings and their work means they have a well of novel discoveries, but their language can be so specialised that no one outside their field understands what they’re doing. Therefore, says Randy Olson, scientists need to work out how to connect with other people. He thinks the answer is in Hollywood, so he’s teamed up with two actors to produce a book on storytelling for academics.

I liked Don’t be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson’s first book. Or at least I wanted to like it. It is a good book, and he makes a good case that to persuade people you have to move their emotions. Facts are not enough. But how do you do that? The title, basically saying “that thing you keep doing, stop doing that” isn’t helpful. If Don’t be Such a Scientist is about showing there’s a problem, then Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking is a step towards working out what the solution is.

Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. Poincaré.

A simple collection of facts aren’t enough for scientists, they have to be presented a certain way. and Olson argues the same is true of the public. Facts alone are not the answer, the solution is story telling, and in this era that means taking advice from Hollywood. This is depressing for me as I find a lot of Hollywood output tedious. There is a reason for that. But if you want to communicate with the public en masse there’s not a lot of mileage in complaining you have the wrong public.

Fortunately Connection doesn’t through me into a pit of despair, because there are useful practical guides in the book.

The opening paragraph in this post uses the ABT template. I’ve made it explicit above. You have fact and fact, but complication therefore action. It is malleable and you don’t have to make it so obvious what you’re doing.

There’s also the WSP model. This is reducing your story to one paragraph, one sentence and even down to one word. This isn’t about reducing your research down to one word, but rather describing why I should care about your research. The aim isn’t delivering facts in the one word. Instead it’s about where in the heart you’re aiming for.

The book also introduces the logline, ripped from Holywood to create a story around your research. They’ve also written an app available for Android and iOS to help apply the model. The Scientist Videographer has produced a handy guide.

The template element bothers me, but maybe it shouldn’t. I’m tempted to complain that it’s impossible to reduce everything to a simple model. On the other hand, it seems any new scientific discovery can be fitted into the template of Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion – so why not a template for science communication? I also have a hope that the variety of discoveries people make will also counteract the uniformity of the template.

There are problems, for me, with the book. It’s very American, so there are references to actors I’ve never heard of in television programmes we’ve never seen. It’s not an inherent problem with the book, it’s for an American audience but some of the models might not travel so well outside the USA. This is a minor problem. On the whole, after reading the book you will have some techniques for finding a story in your research. If you’re looking to connect with a wider audience, then this book is a good starting point.

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