Why Scientists Need to Become Storytellers: A Conversation with Tullio Rossi, Animate Your Science

A PhD marine biologist, with a talent for graphic design and communicating science, Tullio Rossi helps scientists get their work noticed and make a positive impact on society. In 2017, he founded Animate Your Science.  His company creates video animations and infographics that are engaging, understandable, and shareable on social media. In his workshops, Dr. Rossi teaches scientists how to use storytelling to build awareness of their work. We spoke with him in his Australian home about the importance of telling stories about science.

Why is storytelling an important skill for scientists?

Storytelling has been around for quite some time. Some stories of indigenous Australians are older than the great barrier reef! Storytelling was a tool used before writing to teach people about the world and transmit knowledge.  People are captivated by stories.

What elements should be included in a story about science?

Good stories need some conflict or drama. When it comes to science, it’s not about battles or grenades or kidnapping. In science, the drama happens because we don’t know or understand something. Good stories identify the high stakes and consequences that scientific work can help address. A good story tells the listener what’s at stake. By identifying why it’s important to fill the knowledge gap, you make a science story compelling.  In other words, ask yourself, what do we risk if we don’t fill this knowledge gap?

Effective stories also involve a character. Creating a character works well with animation because you can put a face on anything. When you make a character that’s human and relatable, people will develop an emotional connection and attachment to your character which makes people care. Once you get people to care, you can influence their behavior. Here is an example of how you can use a fictional character to communicate a complex scientific idea like coral bleaching.

What format do good science stories take?

A popular type of story is the hero’s journey.  You can tell a story with a fictional character or put a researcher at the center of the story and make them the hero.   A third way to structure a story is to talk about who’s impacted by the research to bring the importance of the science to life.

Good stories have a plot twist, where something unexpected happens.  This is often the case with science.  You might start off with a hypothesis but discover something that surprises you.  That makes a great science story.

How do you help scientists find their story?

I was recently working with a young PhD who said, ‘all I do is write code for satellites from morning until midnight, nobody cares about my code’. I said “You are right, nobody cares about you writing code. However, there must be a good reason why there is funding for you to spend all this time coding. You are so immersed in the day-to-day grind that you lost track of the bigger picture. You lost touch with WHY you do what you do. You forgot what larger problem you are solving with your code. You must step back and look at your research from a distance to see the bigger picture. That’s what the public cares about.”  That helped her find the story.

The advice I give during my workshops is to talk to as many people as possible about your science. It gives you an external perspective.  There is great value is learning how other people see your work.

Early in my career as a researcher I attended a one-minute speed networking event. After talking to many people about my science I noticed a pattern. People thought my research was about food. Not fish and not climate, which is the way I saw it.  I realized that they saw fish as food. As a marine biologist I didn’t view it this way. These conversations helped me find the “so what” and important relevance of my research. My work was really about food security.

What makes video such a great medium for telling science stories?

Video is undeniably the medium of the moment. People don’t want to take the time to read anymore. I’ve seen statistics that say 80% of Internet traffic by 2020 will be video. This is a major trend that will continue because people like watching stories. There are new tools to make it easier to turn news stories into video. For example, there’s an artificial intelligence application called Wibbitz that can take the content of an article and turn it into video in seconds which is important to news outlets that want to get the story out fast. When you have good images and a powerful narrative, video is a great way to tell your story. You can use video to describe a scientific abstract or summarize a research paper.

For a science abstract, the videos we produce have a very simple structure. We work with scientists to find the words and images to describe the context and knowledge gap, the discovery, and why their scientific research matters. To capture the content of a research paper, we find a way to tell a persuasive story which often entails creating a character and putting that character at the center of the narrative.

How did you get hooked on using storytelling to help scientists?

I found my way into video storytelling quite by accident. When I finished writing my first research paper in graduate school, I found myself thinking that no one would read it. That started my journey into figuring out how to make a video.   After reading Randy Olson’s book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking about storytelling I decided to base my story on a character, a baby fish. The creation of this baby fish changed my life.  The animated video I produced won three awards and generated thousands of views. Most importantly, it made me realize that I really connected with my audience. Total strangers wrote me emails thanking me for the work I was doing. Certainly no one ever before told me “thank you” for doing my research. Making that first video was an extremely rewarding experience for me. From it I recognized the value of talking about science using storytelling and video to educate, inform and persuade.

Why do you think scientists have trouble communicating effectively about their work?

Scientists are far too close to what they work on.  They live, breathe and bathe in it. They are so close that they typically cannot see the bigger picture. Young researchers often struggle with this. I know I did.

Does every type of science lend itself to video and animation?

I’d say yes.  You can sketch and animate anything.   Some things are hard to film, like artificial intelligence. There you can create an abstract representation which can be animated. I worked with a researcher who invented a compound that can be used to clean up oil spills affordably and sustainably. By using animation, we had no need to stage an oil spill and film it. It made the process very easy for us and the researchers.

You offer workshops to teach scientists how to become better communicators. What do participants learn?

I teach researchers, PhDs, professors and directors of research centers how to communicate about their science using video and graphics. I share the case study of my first video about the baby fish. I dissect that video to reveal the thinking behind it, so participants can replicate it.  I demonstrate how to use an affordable software tool to create a whiteboard animated video and explain how to create infographics.

These days more scientific journals are requiring graphical abstracts for all sorts of disciplines, especially chemistry and medical topics.  So, scientists have to understand this important aspect of communicating about their work.

What advice do you have for scientists who want to get decision-makers to support their work?

Don’t expect decision makers to appreciate the value of scientific knowledge for knowledge sake. Make what’s at risk clear and compelling to be persuasive. Understand what matters to them and how they see the world. Once you know that, try to explain the relevance of your research through that frame. In other words make it about them!