Tips and Best Practices for Telling Science Stories

A lot of people ask us: Why should we use storytelling in science communication? 

It’s tempting to think that a cool science finding can speak for itself. But think of it this way: What happens if you ask the everyday person to read a summary of, say, the efficacy of intra-arterial chemotherapy for retinoblastoma? Their eyes will probably glaze over. 

What if you take that same topic but make it engaging and easy to understand? You turn it into a story about how an incredible new treatment for a rare childhood eye cancer saved a little boy’s life — and helped him keep his eyesight. That could pique their interest, pull on their heartstrings and maybe even inspire a donation to research that could help more kids. 

At Message Lab Media, using narratives and storytelling to communicate science is central to our work. Here are some tips, tricks and best practices from our team. 

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is the art and science of weaving together a series of events and characters. They can be about real people or fictional characters, and are often filled with emotions, high stakes and larger lessons. 

Storytelling often starts with two important steps: 

  1. Finding a story within a given topic
  2. Identifying key elements of that story

Finding a story within a topic

Science writers are often tasked with writing about a new area of research (say, diabetes prevention) or a science-related issue in their community (something like: how climate change is impacting local fisheries). These are topics, broad categories of information. 

But audiences don’t engage with topics, at least not for long. They need stories to catch their attention. So the writer’s job is to find a story within a topic – to find the ideas, characters and events that will keep readers engaged. 

But how do you identify a story within a topic? 

You might: 

  • Talk to the researchers behind a study. You can uncover their personal motivation that drives their research, and build your story around that.
  • Connect with people who may be impacted by research. This might mean reaching out to a local diabetes organization to ask if any of their members would be interested in sharing their experience and why they think prevention is important. You might be surprised about how eager they are to talk to you and help!
  • Use creative scene-setting or personification. This can be a great option for topics that don’t have an obvious hero. For example, if your story is about studying the underlying cells that cause diabetes, can you bring the reader to the place where the science is happening, showing them how T cells attack the pancreas? Can you open your story with a scene of a fish whose home is being destroyed? 

Elements of a story

All stories have a few crucial ingredients. Using these to form an outline can be a great way to get started with science storytelling. 

Here are the key ingredients: 

  • A hero. This is your main character, the one you want your audience to root for. In science storytelling, your hero could take many forms: a researcher, a postdoc, a person who benefits from your research, a donor, a single cell – or even a fish. 
  • A call to adventure. Your hero is facing a challenge. There’s a problem to solve – rising seas, incurable disease, not enough trees. And your hero has a strong motivation to take on even one small part of that problem. 
  • Stakes and/or conflict. A hero’s journey is never easy. We rarely hear stories where our hero wakes up, saves the world and is home in time for dinner. Instead, we get invested in characters who face challenges and find ways to overcome them. 
  • Resolution and/or change. Because your hero went on this journey, something resolves or changes. Maybe they discovered a new cell that contributes to diabetes or made key progress in saving one coral reef. Your hero does not need to solve a huge issue like climate change or cancer in its entirety – but their story should highlight progress, why the journey mattered and how it led to change. 

Why is storytelling important in science communication?

Storytelling in science communication is an important tool for: 

  • Engaging and educating. Stories can engage and stick with audiences in ways that lists or scientific journals may not. A strong science story can invite curiosity and bring a reader into the world of scientific wonder. 
  • Making science more approachable. Science is often communicated in complex terms. Storytelling shapes science in ways that are accessible to the general public. 
  • Showcasing why your work matters. Storytelling is more than stating the facts. Stories provide context around science and research, and help people understand how they affect their community and world – and why they should care. 

How do you tell a science story?

Here are a few key steps and best practices that can help your organization use storytelling to communicate science to non-experts. 

Start with your audience

Make the story revolve around your audience. Use any data you have about them from surveys, interviews and feedback. 

It’s important to: 

  • Think critically about who your story is for. Science stories for people who donate to research may pull on the heart strings, while science stories for scientists may focus more on the technical details.
  • Use the right channel. Some audiences love social media, while others prefer email – and you may lose some readers if you don’t share any stories in print. 
  • Know their level of understanding. When in doubt, make your language accessible to capture more readers – aim for an 8th-grade reading level. If you need to use technical terms, be sure to explain them.  

Gather the facts

A science story needs a compelling narrative. It also needs to communicate science clearly and effectively. 

A few best practices for clear communication include: 

  • Do everything you can to interview the scientists involved in the project. Do background research ahead of the interview. Then, during the interview, dig into questions to clarify the science and why it can make a difference for everyday people – either now or in the future. 
  • Be sure to follow up and clarify. Make sure you gather as much information as you can during your interview. It’s okay to say, “I’m not sure I fully understand. Can you try explaining that again? Imagine you’re explaining to your aunt at a family picnic.”
  • Get permission to record the interview. This makes it much easier to capture all the information and guide your questions, without worrying about writing everything down. 
  • Confirm your scientific explanations. Run your writing by your interviewee before you publish. 

Explain facts clearly and simply

When it’s time to put pen to paper, a few best practices include: 

  • Use metaphors. The regulatory function of T cells may be lost on many readers. Explaining that these cells work like quality control agents, making sure all the other cells do their jobs, is way easier to understand.
  • Put numbers in clear context. Knowing that 13 million American children experience food insecurity seems like a lot. But knowing that 1 in every 5 children – or about 5 kids in an elementary school class – are affected can have more impact. 
  • Bring readers along with you. Educate them as you go. Many scientists worry about “dumbing down” science. While a science story may not capture every minute detail, science storytelling can leave a reader with understanding and emotion that makes them want to act.

Learn more:

At Message Lab Media, we work with all types of science and research organizations to share stories that engage their audiences and share why their work matters. Learn more about Science Communications with Message Lab Media. Plus, see our stories about how T cells attack the pancreas in T1D and how intra-arterial chemotherapy changed Miguel’s life. 


You Might Like


Do you love to get insights and practical tips? Sign up to have them sent straight to your inbox.

    Work with us
    close slider