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Five years into building Climanosco from the ground up and slowly but steadily growing our content and community, this year’s lock-down situation allowed me to step back to reflect on and challenge what we’re doing. It’s also given me the chance to exchange thoughts and experiences with people with similar interests in science communication.
One such exchange has been with Juliette Cortes, a researcher working on the online communication of a research programme (www.rivercare.nl). Our conversation focused on her latest research paper, “Storylines for practice: a visual storytelling approach to strengthen the science-practice interface”. In preparing the paper, Juliette and her team looked at how to make research about sustainable river management more accessible and relevant to water management professionals.
In spare moments found during our home-office/home-schooling schedules, Juliette and I exchanged ideas about how we could apply some of the learnings from their paper to Climanosco’s work. I share in this blog some of these reflections – and invite you to share your own thoughts on how to create narratives that resonate with readers.
Raising and fulfilling expectations
I had two ‘aha!’ moments while reading and exchanging about Juliette’s paper.
The first one was realizing the importance of appropriately raising and fulfilling readers’ expectations.
Let’s take as an example a newsletter or blog you read on a regular basis. The likelihood is high that you have specific expectations you know will be fulfilled by reading this publication. These expectations can be about the quality of the information. They can be about an overall socio-political narrative that you like. They can be about the entertainment provided. These expectations build up over time through exposure.
Now let’s consider the articles published in our journal, Climanosco Research Articles (www.climanosco.org/research-articles). As you know, these articles are written by researchers for a broad audience that includes readers without prior scientific knowledge. These articles are in fact a new type of publication. They are not scientific papers written for scientists. Nor are they journalistic articles digesting science for an amateur readership. They are an unusual type of communication where, to make sense of the story, you will be brought to learn about scientific concepts.
When starting to read a Climanosco research article, it is natural to wonder what it is all about, and what to expect. In the absence of other indications, one’s own pre-existing expectations might prevail. But when one’s expectations are out of tune with the author’s intention, the content may not be enjoyed and understood at its fullest level.
One way to help our readers get more out of our unfamiliar content is to establish a sort of handshake with them, whereby expectations are properly raised and are fulfilled in a satisfying manner. There are two levels where I think this could improve our articles, namely at the level of the scientific concepts and at the level of the narrative.
At the level of the scientific concepts, we should acknowledge that not all readers are interested in engaging with all concepts, and that readers should be informed upfront about the concepts addressed in an article. Here we could provide a “What you will learn” box in a distinct area at the top of our publications to let readers know which concepts are explored, and then thoughtfully address these in the text. Beyond helping readers filter content more easily, this can have another positive effect by helping our authors be more conscious about how they address scientific concepts involved in their article and help them streamline their focus.
At the level of the narrative, we should make best use of subtitles and possibly visuals to carve out the overall story, since these are the first elements that stand out. This will help the readers scan through the article, identify the overall structure and build appropriate expectations on the content before diving into it. Storytelling subtitles can be made of pull quotes, short summaries, or of an overall narrative line, for instance. Visuals should be used to complement the subtitles wherever a non-verbal level of communication is useful to consolidate the narrative, such as for instance to describe a setting, a scenery or to convey feelings or emotions.
With subtitles and visuals serving to make the narrative transparent to the reader, authors may dedicate the outline section at the start of the manuscript to raising the reader’s interest about the content.
Where’s the narrator hiding?
The other ‘aha!’ moment for me was the idea of introducing a protagonist in the narrative. Scientific papers in general are written in a neutral way to avoid shadowing the results with subjective values or opinions. This makes perfect sense for sharing research among peers because it allows other scientists to repeat research and verify or narrow down its results. However, for many people who do not seek to repeat the research presented, this neutrality can feel alienating and disengaging.
One common solution is to have the writer – i.e. here the researcher – narrate the story. In this case, the researcher positions herself/himself as the implicit protagonist. This however may raise the expectation for the reader to learn about the researcher in the text. Here, a short personal introduction that specifically connects the author to the story will help make the whole narrative more satisfying for the reader.
Another solution that is rarely seen would be to use a distinct protagonist, created for the purpose of walking the reader through the story. Here, the paper by Juliette and her team makes the powerful suggestion to incarnate the protagonist as a stakeholder of particular relevance for the publication. Examples could be a citizen, forester, fisherman, manager, policy maker, etc. who is directly impacted by the topic of research. This strategy may be powerful because it may help individuals belonging to that stakeholder group to perceive the story as more directly relevant.
The two main risks of this approach are the alienation of other types of readers who might feel that the story does not speak to them, and the risk of introducing clichés that could make the chosen stakeholders feel misunderstood. A possible strategy that Juliette and team concluded from their results is that it may help to write the narrative with the intended protagonist or a particular stakeholder, but with a narrative which puts the emphasis on common positive human aspects such as curiosity, love, etc. rather than on the specificities that distinguish such stakeholders from others.
This blog was written with contribution of Juliette Cortes.
Post-doc researcher at the Delft University of Technology and guest researcher at the University of Twente, The Netherlands.
See Juliette Cortes’ LinkedIn profile
Over the coming future, we will be working on exploring and experimenting with new forms of communication of climate science and this blog with all your feedbacks is the start.
Please share your thoughts in the discussion area below!
- Cortes Juliette, Verbrugge Laura, Sools Anneke, Brugnach Marcela, Wolterink Rik, van Denderen Pepijn, Candel Jasper, Hulscher Suzanne (2020). Storylines for practice: a visual storytelling approach to strengthen the science-practice interface. Sustainability Science. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00793-y.