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  • Writer's pictureBrad Cochrane

Storytelling for Scientists

Sir Issac Newton sitting under an apple tree. An apple falls and he develops the Universal Law of Gravitation.
Issac and the Apple (

Science matters.

The Scientific Method, the idea that facts are proven through rigorous analysis, is under attack. Intractable attitudes. Active hostility. Public indifference. Yet, science matters and it’s the duty of individual scientists to take up the banner in defense.

Unfortunately, some scientists are stuck in the old ways. With an exclusive obsession on rigorous investigation and provable facts, science is working against itself. The truth is that data alone is no longer enough.

Why? Because the human experience is different today than it was a few years, decades, or centuries ago. In an earlier age when information was scarce, any new material had great value. People hungered to know more. With the introduction of the Scientific Method, humanity developed a belief in the infallibility of science and scientists. Especially when they could see results from the technological advancements that made their lives easier and happier. The light bulb pushed back the night and medicines cured disease.

Science matters.

That was then, this is now. The sum of human knowledge has exploded. Today, the challenge isn’t scarcity of information but rather too much. Saul Wurman, the founder of TED, describes this as Information Overload. With over-supply, the intrinsic value of information is diminished. The brain simply cannot sort out the real from the spurious because in a very real sense, the fact-gathering part of the brain is full. People don’t want more information but rather less.

According to George A. Miller, the number of objects that a brain can hold in short-term memory is seven (plus or minus two). Under constant bombardment from broadcasting, email, texts, social media, and the next new thing, the brain feverishly flushes out the old to make way for the new. Ideas come and go too quickly for comprehension.

If scientists want their ideas to be adopted, then the old way of persuasion through facts and data no longer works because the funnel is full. Scientists must adopt a path that goes around.

If you tell someone a fact, you trigger two parts of their brain. If you tell them a story, you trigger seven. As someone who wants to influence others to adopt a new point of view, would you rather lead with a fact or a story?

The stories that stick exist in long-term memory. The brain doesn’t stock-pile ideas, memories, and beliefs on a shelf like a reference library. Instead, they’re spread out in bits and pieces across the onion-like wrapping of the cortex. When an idea is needed, it isn’t retrieved like a book but rewritten in the moment from its many sources. As Mary Henle points out, understanding is a creative act.

Modern scientists know that meaning takes place on the farther side of logical argument. It’s the realm of non-fiction storytelling that employs the structure of story to convey important facts. (To be clear, this method makes the data no less valid). Data, facts, and conclusions that are attached to stories bypass the working memory and are more likely to become attached to internal belief systems.

Your audience may not recall the mathematical formula for Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, but they do know about the apple falling onto his noggin. The apocryphal story is remembered because in the process of writing it, the brain recalls senses and emotions along with facts.

It’s also the classic story formula of Context-Complication-Resolution-Lesson.

· Context: A beautiful day lazing under the apple tree.

· Complication: An apple falls onto a scientist’s head –ouch!

· Resolution: Why did it fall? Gravity of course.

· Lesson: Gravity is a universal force and understanding it helps us understand our world.

Science matters. So do stories.

--Brad Cochrane

Do people’s eyes glaze over at the sound of your voice? Then, you need the Storytelling for Scientists program. You’ll learn the art of changing public perception through storytelling. Skills include story construction, how to find great non-fiction stories, and how to tell effective stories. Convert them from disinterest to bright-eyed enthusiasm.

Get started here.

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