How stories and images can break down interdisciplinary boundaries

When I first learned the rules of the Falling Walls Lab, they surprised me. Each presenter had just three minutes to explain the originality and impact of an exciting scientific discovery. It reminded me of “fast chess”—the version of chess that’s radically compressed to five minutes per player. The winning qualities are clarity and efficiency, not thoroughness.

When I write stories, it can take me more than 3 minutes to write a single sentence. Now imagine summarizing your start-up or your 500-page dissertation in that same length of time.

By the end of the first third of the Lab, strengths and weaknesses of the rapid-fire format had become very clear. Three minutes forced presenters to ruthlessly simplify and summarise. Many presenters stumbled over the sheer quantity of information they tried to include; audience questions became cursory by necessity.

But there were obvious advantages to the time limit, too. Three minutes was long enough for audience members to feel either tantalized or dissatisfied. Many of the strongest talks left the audience with a single compelling image or idea, like a “DNA band-aid,” a “micro-rocket” that propels molecules through the bloodstream, or the provocative idea that human beings are simply evolved homes for microbes.

Journalists keenly understand the importance of vivid imagery like this. When our readers and editors can’t see a story, they don’t want to read it. To this day, I remember my grandfather telling me that amino acids are “building blocks of life”—an image that stuck with me, even though I was far too young to understand that without amino acids there would be no proteins and thus no life. In the communication of science, imagery is the tool that transcends disciplinary boundaries. It’s what allows chemists, astrophysicists, and economists to talk to each other.

AnSchoe_MG_5320At Falling Walls 2015, storytelling was often what separated the memorable from the forgettable. The astrophysicist Brian Schmidt remarked after his talk that metaphors and stories are often the best way to communicate scientific findings—even when the metaphors imperfectly capture the subtleties of science. Images and stories allow us to synthesize, analyse, and value information.

As the Falling Walls Lab continued, I started to see deep parallels between the work of scientists and the work of science journalists. Suddenly the three minute restriction made sense. In my own field of public radio, that’s the length of a typical news report about science. I once spoke to a National Public Radio host who said that for most people, ten seconds is hardly long enough to walk a few paces or take a sip of water—but it’s long enough for her to read a headline from across the world.

Presenters used many of the same tactics as radio journalists. They cited experts, referenced precedents, and set scenes that dramatized the problem they hoped to solve. One of the words that recurred over and over again was “imagine.”

The judging process had parallels in journalism, too. Journalists are expected to tell stories with originality, vividness, and impact; all too often, we ask our audiences to imagine what they’ve never seen.

In science, storytelling is necessary but not sufficient. Scientists naturally need more than communication skills—they also need critical minds, a deep understanding of process, and the ability to collaborate, to name just a few key qualities. Research rarely succeeds without narrative, but it obviously takes more than narrative to test a hypothesis or execute an insightful experiment.

Still, in a setting like this—a gathering of minds from across the world and across the disciplinary spectrum—narrative becomes a universal language. When science journalists tell stories, we try to break down the walls around science. When scientists told stories at Falling Walls, they helped break down the walls between sciences.

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