knowledge mobilisation science communication story telling

A story of gifting knowledge with closed doors: venturing into story telling for scientific communication

It was the week before Christmas. After a long day in the office at his university, Fuse duck rushed out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. He had been too busy with completing grant applications and journal papers to even think about presents for family and friends. It was already dark, with a stiff, cold breeze and snow started falling around him. 

As he approached the high street, he noticed a bookshop he hadn’t seen before. It looks rather grand, bit like an ivory tower, but with more doors. Through large windows at the front, he could spot frantic people in white lab coats running between the shelves, carrying big loads of paper and folders. ‘Bingo!’, Fuse duck thought: books make great Christmas presents and I can sort out all my gifts in this store. He merrily stepped inside and was greeted by a large, faulted ceiling underneath which stood endless rows of books in all shaped and sizes, reaching all the way to the ceiling. On first impression, the books looked rather dull and colourless, many of them catching dust, with long, incomprehensible titles edged on their spines in gold.

Undaunted by the ambush of knowledge and people, Fuse duck walked over to the applied research section (which sported a large swirly sign, fusing five different colours) and spotted several books that looked like decent presents for his friends. When he took them to the till, he was met by a stern looking clerk, who inspected his books carefully and with an authoritative voice explained that many of his selected books were not yet ready to leave the bookstore, as they needed more work and review. Could he please come back in 17 years to collect them? The 14% of books that were ready to leave, were neatly packaged by the librarian in shiny, glossy covers with pictures and key phrases all over them that Fuse duck was sure would really impress his friends.

However, when he tried to leave the store, he noticed that there were many doors to exit the store (the entrance was no longer visible) and when he tried the first door in front of him, it was firmly locked and wouldn’t open. He went to the next five doors with the same result: all of them were firmly locked, or the ones that did open led to a dead-end. Fuse duck started to panic, his earlier optimism about getting all his shopping done and being back home in time for the next episode of ‘I am Celebrity, get me out of here’, started to quickly melt away and was replaced with visions of being stuck in the bookshop over Christmas with not a mince pie in sight.

At that moment, a small backstage door that was hidden in a corner of the store opened and a bespeckled, bold man stepped out, fully dressed in a superman outfit with bright blue tights and top (that looked a bit too tight), over which he wore red underpants featuring a large ‘E’ written on them. Fuse duck didn’t know what to make of this man, but he looked friendly enough and was walking over to him to offer his services. As came closer, he produced an impressive brass ring from underneath his cape with a large set of keys stuck to them and started opening several doors for Fuse duck. “Are you a bit lost Sir?”, asked Evidence man in a slightly Dutch accent. “A bit stuck between the institute of knowledge and the outside world? Not to worry! I know the way out to some safe spaces with a friendly audience who would love to hear all about the books you just bought. They would even be interested in the ones that are not ready yet, and they might have a few books of their own to share with you. Shall we go?”

True to his words, when Fuse duck stepped through the first door that Evidence man pointed at, he emerged back in the now snow-covered high street, where a group of his friends were waiting for him and, even better, one of them was carrying a large plate of mince pies! Fuse duck’s spirits lifted immediately, and he vowed to tell his friends all about the helpful Evidence man in the bookstore. But when he turned around, the nice man had disappeared and through the windows of the bookstore could be seen running around to another confused customer. The End.

This story is the result of me attending a story telling workshop at the Fuse end-of- year social event on 3 December, which was led by Duncan Yellowlees. Duncan is a Communications Trainer who works with researchers to improve their communications, confidence, and impact. Have a look at his online COMMunity website (Research Comms … but better) to get a good sense of his intentions and work. In an engaging and entertaining way, he took us through the key elements of storytelling: from key principles (putting pictures in people’s heads; construct a narrative of causes and effects), to different types of stories (metaphorical, motivational or monster stories, stories as hooks, and point-of-view stories), their structures (problem, solution and results) and what to include in stories (the point, examples, people, heroes & villains, magical helpers, and tensions & conflicts). Have a look at my story above to see if you can spot some of these elements 🙂 (spoiler alert with clues can be found at the end of the blog) Or have a look at the recording of the event to learn more about each element.

Overall, he provides us with plenty of tips and tricks on how we can use story telling as academic researchers to communicate our research findings to wider audiences. And relates to his first point (and story) at the event: researchers spend too much time throwing the ball (their research findings) but not nearly enough time on making sure there is someone to catch it (knowledge users). Find your audience first and make them pay attention before you start talking about your research.

His second point was that all this might seem daunting: so many different techniques, plot lines and structures to think about, how can we ever get any good at this? But when comparing it to learning to drive a car, the same principles apply: keep practicing and it gradually (and often quite quickly) it becomes second nature. This is because storytelling is already embedded in everything we do in our daily lives: from telling our family and friends about our everyday experiences, to ‘binging’ on Netflix series and reading books.

Finally, Duncan pointed us to some simple techniques for starting with storytelling in science communication: making stories relatable and relevant (e.g. stress before Christmas) by including named people and adding details (e.g. dark, snowy high streets and describing the interior of the bookshop), which start to paint a picture in people’s heads. Most importantly, start with a hook: a story to draw in your audience, so they want to hear more, or use a question or bold statement as bait (e.g. only 14 percent of research makes it into practice and policy after 17 years).

My story might not have been all you hoped for this Christmas, but the Fuse social event brought some useful gifts for the Fuse Communications toolkit and much needed festive cheer at the end of another challenging academic year. Merry Christmas everyone and happy storytelling!


Spoiler alert:

  • The point: knowledge mobilisation between academia and practice is facilitated by a knowledge exchange broker.
  • Heroes: academics producing research and papers, while running between bookshelves
  • Villain: Bookstore clerk
  • Magic helper: Evidence Man
  • Tensions & conflicts: research dusting away on bookshelves or not being ready to leave to the building, while access to knowledge users is restricted or confusing.
  • Type of story: metaphorical story, overlapping with stories as hooks (to introduce this blog and talk about the storytelling workshop).
knowledge mobilisation policy making public health science communication

Scientific communication during a pandemic: slogans, ethical dilemmas and performance managing MPs

Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. Lot of people don’t get that” (Rick and Morty, 2013)

Never before have science, research and evidence been so central to government policymaking, so widely discussed in the media and in public discourse, and so controversial and contentious especially in debates on social media.

Last week, the HSRUK conference 2021  hosted a plenary session titled ’Science, evidence and government policy: lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic’, chaired by Kieran Walshe. During the session three experts related their experiences of science communication with government during the pandemic, including Christina Pagel, who is a member of the Independent SAGE group and Director of Clinical Operational Research Unit at UCL; Chris Gopson, who is Chief Executive of NHS Providers, and Sarah Hopson, a GP and former MP for Totnes.

What their reflections highlighted was a skills gap at both ends: academics need to work with slogans and wrestle with ethical dilemmas when presenting key messages, while policy makers need better performance management that includes training on understanding and using research evidence.

Chris Hopson set the tone of the debate by distinguished two ways in which national leaders prefer to communicate about science during the pandemic: the first way, represented by the UK, likes to keep it short and simple, is in favour of repeating snappy messages with key slogans (e.g. Hands, Face, Space), and does not want to elaborate in much details or recognise any uncertainty in the messages they are communicating. In contract, countries like Germany and New Zealand prefer a more open and transparent communication strategy, in which they are happy to go into detail, share uncertainty in the evidence they are presenting and acknowledge the challenges and risk of the decisions they are trying to make.

Chris was in favour of the second strategy, arguing that the quality of decision-making is improved by transparency and openness in public debate about scientific data and its interpretation. However, session participants pointed out that this strategy does not always work in the favour of scientific advisors at No. 10. The example was shared of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, complaining about the challenge of convincing the government to act on research data, while the scientific community is divided on the proposed actions and openly debating on Twitter against the measures that he is urging the government to take.

Chistina Pagel offered some tips from her experiences as spoke person for the Independent SAGE group on how the manage the balance between openness and consensus. First of all, don’t try to put too much detail in your briefings for policy makers. As a science communicator you need to understand the detail but only present the key messages to policy makers. Teasing out these messages involves a careful process of piecing together the various sources of imperfect information  and weighing them up carefully with a consideration of their context. Christina suggested guiding questions for shaping these messages: are things getting better or worse? What can we do to change the trajectory emerging from the data?

She acknowledged the challenges in this process, for instance, the ethical dilemma of being truthful but not putting the public off (e.g. people not going to hospital or accepting vaccinations because of rising infections in hospital and rare health risk of vaccinations). In piecing together the research, time is never on your side: there is a lag in the reporting of data (e.g. infections translating into hospital admissions), so you are always working with imperfect information, but you don’t have time to wait for more rigorous trial data. And when you data suggests an exponential growth in cases, this often clashes with perceptions of policy makers and the public that “things are fine” at the moment and therefore have no appetite for reintroducing restrictions.

Learning how to navigate these challenges is a core skill for researchers who often prefer to run a mile when faced with political values over objective data. Or as a session participant put it: the role of campaigning does not come natural to scientist. Scientists need to get better at the art of communicating their science. Christina’s top tip was to be compassionate with the audiences you are communication with, who often experience more difficulties from COVID-19 than you and, therefore you need, to be mindful of how you relate your key messages to their experiences.

But not only scientist needs to change their game. Sarah Hopson lamented the lack of research training for MPs by criticising that policy makers are only being performance managed on whether they turn up and vote. From her own experiences in Parliament, she recalled hoe MPs are ignorant of research and not supported in how to use evidence in their decision-making. Moreover, MPs have often no experiences of managing large organisations and yet are asked to make decisions on how to run large structures, such as the NHS.  She pleaded for more continued professional development of MPs that include training on understanding evidence and how to manage large organisations.

Scientists can support MPs in their professional developed by making them aware of their research. Sarah made a plea for not underestimate the importance of evidence submissions to Select Committees and by talking to your local MP to share your research and discuss what it means for policies that they are interested in. This doesn’t have to be in slogans or bended truths; quite the opposite: embrace uncertainty by letting policy makers know when we don’t know what course of action to take; and be willing to learn from mistakes by being reflective on our communication with policy makers.