Use Story Structure and the ABT Model to Make Decision Makers Care About Your Science

Scientists typically spend too much time showing result after result without providing a good narrative. How many talks can you remember where there was no exposition of a fundamental gap in our scientific knowledge or rationale for why the world needs a new technology? Great talks have both—and persuasive speakers trot these points out early and then spend most of their time explaining what they, or you, can do about it. The same general principles apply in conversations.

To learn how to create compelling narratives to explain your science, pick up Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking,by Randy Olson (a PhD marine biologist). Olson reminds us that simply reciting information is not the way to start a story. Your data is important, and while he acknowledges the need for a factual basis for discussion, he says that’s not enough. According to Olson, “A story begins when something happens.Just listing facts and findings does not constitute something happening. Listeners get restless when the lead-in gets too long. People expect the story to start. The is especially true for busy decision makers. Details can be exposed later, after the audience is sure it’s a story they want to hear. People have to care to want to follow a story—whether it is a movie or a grant request. “Why do I care?” is the question you must keep your listeners from asking—let them know why they should care.

The And-But-Therefore Model

Olson provides his And, But, Therefore formula for creating an interesting story from the typical list of “this, and this, and this, and this” that scientists often have in their heads. Just replaceandwith butor therefore.In its most basic form (which he attributes to Trey Parker, the cocreator ofSouth Park), Olson’s version of the scientist’s story is, “This and this are true, but this flies in their face, therefore the following things must be done.” “This and this” represent the exposition, the preliminaries, the setup for explaining your science. Olson says that most scientists never get out of this mode—they use their entire time on exposition and don’t get to the point.

Dr. Tullio Rossi, a marine biologist and masterful science communicator compares the standard list-like presentation with Olson’s more engaging And, But, Therefore model in this informative comic.   Using compelling narratives and story structure can make a decision maker care and make you stand out from other scientists seeking support for their work. Check out Rossi’s work on  He knows how to harness the power of story to create interest in learning more about your science. Put a bit of ABT in your conversations and see what a difference it makes!