‘Storytelling is your best weapon for convincing people’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling and more.

There’s the science of storytelling, stories about science, and storytelling in science – bringing elements of storytelling to traditional forms like the journal article. Is that a distinction you’ve considered?
Definitely. I’ve done lots of writing about science and had to wrestle with some of the inherent tensions around with that: one of the main ones being that mass market storytelling tends towards simplification and good science tends towards nuance and complexity. For example, there’s often a pressure to identify the hero of the story – this amazing person who discovered this amazing thing – and of course the reality is usually a team of amazing people.

Some scientists seem to think storytelling goes beyond simplification, to handwaving and fabrication, a means of obscuring and misdirecting…
Yes, and for good reason… if you want to mislead people or sell them your one-eyed view of the world, then storytelling is the best way to do it. It’s as dangerous as it is helpful. But there are ways around that. You don’t have to use storytelling for its most egregious purposes. There are some basic understandings in the science of storytelling that are separate from this – especially things around structure, cause and effect, and simplicity.

For my work I have to read a lot of books written by scientists, and even though I’m fascinated by them, they’re often a real struggle for a layperson like me to get through. They don’t understand some of these basic storytelling ideas. They’re often very discursive, over-complex, tend towards jargon… even the ones that are written for the mass market are sometimes like this. All scientists, but especially ones that are interested in engaging with the public, would be well advised to take some of these basic ideas seriously.

Can you give more examples of those structural aspects?
There’s a basic form that I always used when I was writing longform science, to account for nuance and complexity. You begin in the most simple place possible – hopefully with one person, or one or two people, in a situation. What idea is this person being challenged by, what are they confused about, what puzzle are they trying to solve? Draw the reader in, but you need to wait, I would say even until the third quarter, to add the real complexity. Very often in all kinds of journalism, in all kinds of writing, people try to hit you with that complexity and nuance straightaway and it’s just overwhelming. Most people will stop reading – ‘I’ve been given four names in two paragraphs, loads of jargon, three bits of insight…’. So it’s about being absolutely rigorous about that simplicity. Especially if it’s mass market, if they’re not already immersed in those ideas that you’re writing about… you’ve got to treat them with care and respect, not overwhelm and overload them.

When I’m working as a ghostwriter for people, they sometimes have this anxiety ‘I have to tell everything upfront, otherwise people might think I don’t know X Y and Z essential facts’. You should have the confidence that they’re going to judge you on the whole thing, and if they judge you on half the thing then their judgement’s irrelevant. It’s having the patience to wait to add the complexity, until the reader is engaged and really wants to know. If you’re watching a murder mystery, at some point when you’re really into it, you’re going to want to know about all the people involved and all the different relationships they have. But if you’re hit with it up front, it’s ‘What am I watching?!’.

Whereas a murder mystery will start with that simple scenario, some people in a room, something has happened, something has changed. You write about change and the fact that we’ve evolved to detect and respond to change, so that makes it an incredibly strong opening to any story.
That’s right… there’s great work that shows that people become automatically curious about completely irrelevant matters, of no import, if you do this stuff right. That’s gold for a storyteller. I use the example of Malcolm Gladwell… I know he’s become more controversial, with accusations of over-simplifying the ‘10,000 rule’ on expertise, but he’s a structural master. His story on psychology and food testing, which he frames around ‘Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?’. You might ‘I’m not going to read 10,000 words on ketchup!’, but you start reading and can’t stop because he builds it into this absolute mystery. He makes us curious about this, and that’s really masterful. It’s that simplicity, a very simple puzzle, and science writing at its best technique-wise.

There are examples of that from actual journal articles… not many, but the paper that originally described the Dunning-Kruger effect is a good example. There will often be a scenario that psychologists can use to draw the reader in, but it’s rare to see psychologists take advantage of that.

Some psychologists I’ve talked to argue that career progression can depend on storytelling, and that it shouldn’t. So I wondered if there’s a line to be drawn between your work on storytelling and your new book on thirst for status.
The conscious mind processes reality as a story. We tend to feel like we’re moral heroes on fabulous journeys, trying to make everything better for ourselves and the world. That’s a particularly powerful form of cognitive bias. But the subconscious reality of that is that we’re actually playing games of status. Our striving for status is the moral heroic remixed by the conscious mind: the constant striving for status that people go through, but tell themselves and each other ‘I’m being heroic’.

That’s what you see in archetypal storytelling too: you’ve got these heroes on great journeys, but the subconscious reality of these stories is that the heroes are often gaining status. They begin orphaned or destitute, in a position of very low status, and they end up being celebrated and cheered by crowds. The antagonist often goes on the opposite journey, beginning all powerful and ending up humiliated in some way.

That’s interesting in the context of the open science debate… I’ve often said that many of the past ‘heroes’ of psychology, who mostly became so through their ability to tell stories to large audiences, then went on that journey to ‘villain’… while the ‘stats geek down the corridor’ finds new ideas, new routes and new audiences and becomes the replicability hero.  

I noticed you gave some writing advice to Professor Rory O’Connor, for his book on suicide.
Well, Rory’s been much more help to me than I have to him. He was the big interview to begin my book Selfie. And he was one of the first people to make me think about perfectionism, we talked about it as a precursor to suicidal thinking. But I do remember interviewing Rory and making quite an effort to draw out some personal stuff from him. That evening I was feeling quite pleased with where we got to, and got a phone call from him worried about what he’d said. He eventually allowed me to use mostly what I wanted to, and it was all the more interesting for his personal insight. It just makes it come alive, the suicide expert having had that impact in his own life.

It’s putting the people back in… Mick Billig writes about how psychologists have often managed to strip away the very subject matter of the discipline. The depersonalisation of scientific writing… we should be talking about people and passions and politics and all that side of it, rather than pretending those things don’t matter or don’t even exist.
I think that’s right. I became interested in psychology in the first place when I was writing a Louis Theroux / Jon Ronson kind of book about why people believe in ghosts. We can just make fun of people who have silly beliefs, and there was a lot of that about at the time with the atheist and sceptic movements. But I became far more interested in the actual people behind the beliefs… why do they believe these things? And with The Heretics I realised to find out the truth I need to learn about psychology. To find the facts behind the so-called crazy behaviour… and clearly the people themselves need to be part of that.

Do you think it’s possible to have good clear, accessible, engaging writing, without elements of ‘story’?
Well, it depends what you mean by story. Lots of books about storytelling, which are angled towards the business market, have an idea of story that is too literal. They’re trying to take Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ story structure and impose it on academic papers, or advertising, or business communication. But I take a broader view of what we mean by story. You can take pieces and parts of what story is and apply them separately. For example, the most effective communication is rigorous about cause and effect. I think simplicity is also really important. And simplicity and cause effect are both as much aspects of storytelling as the hero facing the challenge, which is what we traditionally think about with storytelling.

Can you give an example of that in action?
With a lot of science communication, especially when professors write books, they try to pack everything they know into the book, and that makes for lots and lots of discursive material that I would be striking out. Even on the level of the sentence and the paragraph… am I telling you one thing in this paragraph, and one thing alone? Expanding to the depth of the paragraph, and then the next thing we’re going to do is the thing that leads on from that. That takes a lot of discipline, a lot of thinking about structure to pull that off. But it makes the reading experience effortless. We think in causes and effects, we explain the world that way, it’s our natural mode of processing reality.

When I’m teaching this, I show a clip from series three of Twin Peaks. With the first series, I was at school at the time, and who killed Laura Palmer gripped the nation that summer. It was perfect storytelling – a body washes up on a rocky beach in this small town, along comes this weird FBI agent Dale Cooper to answer the question, Who Killed Laura Palmer? Classic beginning of a murder mystery. When David Lynch brought back Twin Peaks for the third series a few years ago, he decided ‘I don’t need all this storytelling stuff, I’m an auteur’. It was absolutely baffling. The first 10-15 minutes, you just don’t know what the hell’s going on, there’s no cause and effect, things just happen. What I show in my course is the Gogglebox version – just ordinary people watching it and reacting in real time. And they begin confused, they very quickly become irritated and by the end they’re laughing at it, all over the span of about six minutes. That’s how you lose an audience.

With people like Lynch their films are often referred to as dreamlike, arthouse, but they have relatively small audiences for a reason. You’ve got to be really into that kind of artistic puzzle and most people aren’t.

It should be easy enough for scientists to avoid being Lynchian?
Well, sometimes I work as an editor on scientists’ books, and the main thing that I’m offering is structure; cause and effect, one thing leads into another, get rid of all the unnecessary stuff or find a place somewhere else to put it where it fits in this nice cause and effect pattern. It’s unbelievably transformative when you go through that process. I call it a logic map, and the exercise is simply to look at each paragraph, and write down in one sentence the one thing that paragraph is telling you. What you’ll often find is that you’re being told the same thing over and over again. There’s no cause and effect, it’s ‘here’s something about this subject, oh here’s something else, and now here’s that first thing popping up again’. Then you just write yourself a new logic map and rewrite to that plan.

Something I’ve found myself doing more and more as an editor in recent years is taking that logic map and looking right to the end of it… that bit at the end where they finally relax, say what they’ve wanted to say all along, speak their mind and bring themselves into it… that goes right up the top, the whole article should be built around that idea and that style. I think many writers want to build up to a big reveal, but it’s too late, you’ve lost your audience by then.
It’s interesting what you say about Lynch because he’s probably an example of how to engage an audience, get a really dedicated following, maybe you decide you don’t like them, and then actively try to lose them! The comedian Stewart Lee is another famous example: how far can you push an audience away before that moment where you snap them back in? Oh I’m a real fanboy of Stewart Lee… one show in particular, with the jungle canyon rope bridge…

Carpet Remnant World.
Carpet remnant world is a work of genius. He even jokes ‘I’m giving you the illusion of structure by saying the same thing over and over’, but he isn’t… it’s an unbelievably well-structured thing. 

Let’s come back to the why of telling stories. Are they a useful way for psychologists to bring about social change?
If you want to bring about social change, I don’t know how we can possibly do that without telling stories. It’s what people are doing constantly on social media, in newspapers, anywhere people are angry about the world and trying to push it in a certain direction, they’re using storytelling techniques. The roots of storytelling are in tribal gossip that triggers moral outrage which triggers action in the world to change people’s behaviour. We’ve seen that all through human history, so it would be naive to think you can change things without telling stories.

That’s when the darkness comes really… good people and bad people use stories. In Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, his thesis was that Republicans are natural and brilliant storytellers and the Democrats always argue on fact. They think that facts convince people, but it’s feelings that convince people. I’m not sure if he worked directly with the Barack Obama campaign but the ‘Hope’ poster was good storytelling… there’s no fact in the word ‘hope’, but it worked. It’s about the story that people understand is true about the world. These stories are never true, they’re oversimplified accounts of the world which paint opposites as villains and themselves as angels. I consider myself a centrist and that’s why centrists struggle, because our story about the world is really boring: ‘they’ve got a good point over there but they’ve also got a good point over there’. It’s not Hollywood.

We were watching the news recently, about Labour needing to reconnect with voters, and my 16-year-old son reminded me of what he calls ‘the Thomas Dixon Gambit’, based on his experiences of standing for school council in Year 7. My son’s campaign was built around biodegradable cups for the canteen, and strong and consistent representation via a listening forum. Dixon’s was ‘A free KFC for everyone!’. He won by a landslide.
You said good and bad people tell stories, and perhaps when I’ve tried to talk about this on Twitter it’s boiled down to ‘some bad psychologists use storytelling, so we don’t like it’, ignoring the fact that it’s possible to use storytelling in a good way. Storytelling is your best weapon for convincing people. It’s been a weapon for convincing people since we were living together in hunter-gatherer tribes. To relinquish that weapon just because people that you don’t like are really good at using it is madness.

Do you have examples of your favourite storytellers in science?
I’m a huge fan of Adam Rutherford’s writing, he’s an extremely talented scientist and also an extremely talented storyteller. Jonathan Haidt is a naturally gifted communicator. Steven Pinker, although he’s a huge bestseller, I’ve always found quite difficult to read, but that might just be me. When I first decided to learn about psychology, the first book I picked up was Pinker and I found it kind of overwhelming. Maybe I should give him another go. And Dan McAdams is a font of knowledge for how we use storytelling to navigate our lives.

I still come back to that distinction in my first question – storytelling in science as opposed to about science. Some psychologists I speak to seem to have that deep suspicion of the former, because they see it as about persuasion, and tell me they have zero interest in convincing anyone of anything.
I just don’t believe that… it’s not how humans work! Any scientist would surely be invested in convincing people their ideas are correct.

I think there’s a suspicion of storytelling in some scientific circles – and that suspicion is justified precisely because storytelling works. It’s often deployed to appeal to people emotionally, rather than factually, and that’s seen as a dangerous and/or inappropriate goal for scientists. But I think the answer isn’t no storytelling, I think it’s smart and rigorous storytelling – communication that respects the reader and cares about their experience, and wants to take them along, but also carefully includes all the nuance and complexity that’s necessary.

Storyteller or fabulist?
Thoughts from our editor Jon Sutton, and from a Twitter discussion…

When I speak to psychologists about becoming storytellers, there can be a reticence, which seems to be about the potential for tall tales, massaging the truth, smoothing the corners. Liz Neeley, the Executive Director of Story Collider, a non-profit focused on telling ‘true, personal stories about science’, told the NPR Short Wave podcast that as a young scientist: ‘I wanted to be the most serious, scientific scientist who ever lived. I thought that storytelling was somewhere between a distraction and a danger. I thought storytelling was likehandwaving… it’s what you did when your data was weak to nudge people towards your preferred interpretation.’

I can understand this, and I was struck by a quote from data fraud Diedrik Stapel: ‘I wanted to manipulate the truth and make the world just a little more beautiful than it is’. Of course, we should be aware of the seductive allure of a beautiful story. But in 2015’s Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs a Story, scientist-turned-storyteller Randy Olson bemoans the fact that ‘Science is a profession that is permeated with narrative structure and process, yet scientists are so blind to the importance of narrative that they don’t even make use of this established label.’

Equally, I think we should remember that uncertainty, incremental change and wrong turns in science can still be beautiful. It’s fine to say ‘We don’t know’, particularly if followed with ‘and here’s why we don’t know: people are complicated, in these ways’. It’s also fine to say ‘We don’t know for sure, but on the basis of the available evidence our advice would be x, y and z’.

I think we’re seeing more of this in recent years, including from open science advocates. Rigorous scientists like Andy Przybylski and Amy Orben are aware they need to tell nuanced yet engaging and practical stories around the research findings. And they need to tell them to large and diverse audiences. Yet whenever I have raised storytelling in science as a topic for discussion on Twitter, there has been a mixed response (see below).

This is, in my view, an aspect of scientific reform which needs to be discussed more. One very ‘broad brush’ way of characterising the whole ‘replication crisis’ in psychology is that it has been the ‘big picture’ storytellers of our discipline, comfortable and confident on the popular stage, versus the more methodologically minded, detail driven, cautious and private scientists. Many of the famous names who have felt under scrutiny are fairly undeniably good at emphasising what is simple, broad, elegant, persuasive, surprising and life-changing about the science of mind and behaviour. For the open science movement to lead to widespread and lasting change, do its advocates need to get to grips with telling the stories of their work, and of open science in general?

We asked about storytelling in Psychology on Twitter. Here are some of the responses…

Chris Chambers: in psychology, at least, storytelling = bullshitting 99% of the time. The Venn diagram isn’t quite a circle but it’s close. For this reason, any programme that seeks to teach or encourage storytelling skills among scientists needs to explicitly do so within the constraints permitted by openness/transparency/reproducibility (& build this into the message) or it is really just encouraging more bullshitting.

If a sci paper ‘tells a good story’, over & above the clarity of the comms, & while achieving hi standards in rigour, transparency & repro, it is probably down to luck. The story just happened. Focusing on this part is cart-before-horse at best, chasing shadows at worst.

Put differently, the story is just an emergent property of what the science revealed. It is not something that makes sense to target through training. This is no ‘skill’ here to be achieved over & above the honest, clear, logically structured, transparent communication of the sci.

So I say quite frankly we don’t need storytellers in our field. I’ve had enough of bullshitting & would happily see an end to all storytelling to reduce bullshitting. We haven’t purged bullshitting to such an extent that we earn the right even contemplate storytelling as a “want”.

Mary Aiken: Greatest challenge for science is popular dissemination, interestingly great scientific communicators are often derided as being ‘populist’ as if reaching a large audience was a bad thing.

Rob Hutton: What’s the point of science if we cannot communicate effectively to non-scientists? What’s an effective way of communicating? Some sort of narrative/story. What is required to make sense of a story? A critical eye! We all need to apply critical thinking, to science too!

Aidan Horner: I find it interesting that the open science movement has a clear narrative/story - bad research practices -> replication crisis -> scientific reform. We all tell stories one way or another, it’s just some are more fictional than others.

Marc Tibber: I have an academic friend who never reads introduction or conclusion sections of a paper as he says he is only interested in the results, not the authors opinions. This is arguably the ideal of a science without storytelling.

If you think storytelling does not play a role in the process, give ten respectable labs the exact same dataset and see how different a paper they each write. My suspicion is that very different stories would emerge without assuming any nefarious practices.

Anne Scheel: I think the concept is ill-defined. What do you (I mean everybody) mean by ‘storytelling’? In some sense, all writing is storytelling, and good writing often capitalises on storytelling elements (e.g. making it clear ‘who’ ‘does’ ‘what’, in a sentence, paragraph, paper etc).

I increasingly think storytelling (in a richer sense, not sentence-level) is a really powerful communication tool. I do think we should use it well, but that probably means respecting the damage it can do (make BS sound more compelling, make the audience remember bad information)

Amy Orben: Narrative and argument are a key part of communicating research and a key part of my paper writing. My papers would not be widely read without strength of argument. However, I have critiqued published advice to researchers that they have to tell the truth but ‘not the whole truth’; and I think that this is when storytelling becomes a problematic priority. We are writers but not *fiction* writers. For me writing fiction allows you to selectively exclude some of the material you collected as an author to make an interesting/compelling story; yet as writers in science we need to include all the material and structure our story around that.

- See also recent Twitter threads on the new Johann Hari book, particularly from Dean Burnett, Pete Etchells and Matthew Sweet. These contain lots of concrete examples of when persuasion becomes problematic in scientific storytelling: for example, be wary of ‘the leading scientist…’. 

Join the conversation @psychmag on Twitter or email [email protected].


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