Storytelling for Researchers in 3 Steps
Research is not only about making discoveries, but about telling the story of those discoveries too. Dorina Baltag explains how when we craft our research story, we shape our own unique voice and illustrate what our research product stands for and why and how it matters to our audience.
More often than not, we are trained in writing an academic piece that has its own structure and research design. This can usually be digested by another academic. When it comes to talking to another audience, however – be it policy practitioners, business owners or our grandparents –we lose their interest.
At non-academic or semi-academic events I can almost always spot the academic in the room purely by the way she or he talks about their work.
As academics, our narration tends to be long and rich with meticulous details; we are so excited by our findings that we get carried away and forget about our listeners, or we are so driven by the chosen theory and methodology that it becomes un-comprehensible for the general public.
I am not calling for us as researchers to drop all those years of experience and become storytellers. What I am saying is that the 3 steps below might come in handy when talking about the work that you do, especially when you are outside your academic comfort zone.
Step 1: Define your strategy. First things first: you must be clear about your purpose, about what you will be storytelling for. At this point, you should distinguish between storytelling with the purpose of informing or with the purpose of selling. Just like in the world of entrepreneurship, the stories of brands help to simplify the complexity of the vision of the companies. Hence, when informing, your story should simplify the theoretical and methodological complexity of your research.
In the business world, products and services are designed with the aim of solving a problem that a society is facing. Storytelling is used to explain the problem, pitch the solution and motivate to action (i.e. selling). Researchers are very good at contextualising research problems; what we should take from the entrepreneurial world is talking about our findings in relation to the identified problem in a relatable way.
Most importantly, we need to know what we are asking for from our target audience: do we want to raise awareness regarding the solution our research has identified? Or do we want to get the results of our research published? Each will need a different way of storytelling.
Step 2: Create a focused narrative. Most good stories have a clear and purposeful structure. You want to take the reader from the broader context of the problem to the specific focus of your research in a series of logical steps. Instead of creating a story about the problem, try to create a story about how your research addresses the problem. This is also a struggle in the business world as the challenge for companies is to create content that is not confusing, ambiguous or inconsistent.
The key for achieving a focused narrative is to attain the right balance between making your message explicit and using the right quantity of data. For this, it is good to think about your message, what type of data do you want to use to substantiate your argument, what you want to show with your data and when. This also links to knowing your audience.
Step 3: Design a captivating story. In the world of storytelling, the advice is usually to look for a good story. But since we are not developing a plot for a movie or a cartoon, the most challenging task for a researcher is to identify the entertainment; the world of research is a serious endeavour, after all.
Here are some ways to add a spark in your research: use examples to show the application of your research and use those examples to highlight your research. Also, be sure to emphasise impact: we usually talk about how our research is scientifically relevant, but what we can also do is to talk about the societal and political added value of our research. Audiences are captivated by learning how research can be positive for society or what policy implications it has. Usually, it is the results or findings of our research that help us demonstrate this.
About the author
Dr. Dorina Baltag teaches European Studies at Loughborough University London. Her research focuses on the practice of diplomacy and the diplomatic performance of the European Union (with case studies in Eastern Europe). She is also committed to empowering researchers in branding themselves by providing a series of workshops on Transferable Research Skills, Storytelling & Pitching for Academics and Marketing Tools for Researchers through her company, the Knowlet.