The importance of storytelling


Much of my time lately has been consumed with two seemingly unrelated activities: reading job applications and reviewing conference papers.

Reading job applications requires me to evaluate a person’s credentials, teaching and research experience, letters of recommendation, and countless other intangibles—all on paper—to determine whether this person might “fit” what we are looking for in a colleague.

Reviewing conference papers requires me to evaluate the validity and importance of the research question, the soundness of the science, the relevance of the results, and the correctness of the interpretation of the results, to determine whether this paper “fits” the definition of “good science” as well as the scope of the conference.

There is one key commonality between them: in both cases, it’s very important that the author tells a good story.

When I was a lowly postdoc in an industrial research lab (lo these many years ago), I had a string of bad luck in terms of paper rejections. A senior colleague in my group kindly offered to review my most recent paper. When we sat down to discuss it, the first thing he said was “the science is great, but where’s the story?” He then explained to me the importance of framing my work, and that if I connected the dots in a plausible and convincing way then my reviewers wouldn’t have to, and in fact (assuming the science was acceptable) that this would increase my chances of having my work accepted.

He was right, of course, and I’ve taken that advice to heart ever since. And indeed, the better my story/framing, the more likely my work is to be accepted.

I was reminded of this as I recently read through (virtual) piles of applications and paper submissions. The best applications, by and large, were the ones that told a plausible and convincing story about the person’s trajectory and, importantly, why that person wanted to work at our institution. This is especially important at a teaching-oriented institution—we want to make sure that people know what they’re getting into and what the expectations are, and that they not only accept this but embrace it. Similarly, the best conference paper submissions both presented good science and made me care about why the science was done in the first place.

There’s a real downside to deciding not to tell a good story, of course. In a perfect world, I’d have more than enough time to evaluate each application or paper slowly, carefully, and deliberately, while well-rested and stress-free. In reality, I’m perpetually sleep-deprived, cranky, and overcommitted, facing down a large (virtual) pile of applications and/or paper submissions and with limited time and cognitive resources to commit to each. A paper or application that tells a good story and connects the dots for me reduces my cognitive load and allows me to concentrate more fully on the science, or the credentials and experience. A paper or application that skips the story increases my cognitive load and distracts me from the science or the credentials/experience. Instead of focusing on the science, I hyper-focus on why the authors chose that particular set of measurements and left out another more suitable set, or find myself nit-picking their approach to the problem. Instead of focusing on the credentials and experience, I wonder why the person didn’t follow the traditional promotion trajectory, or what circumstances are really driving them to apply for the job, or what that off-hand sentence in that letter of recommendation really means. In the absence of a story, I provide my own, and you can bet the story I come up with probably won’t be as flattering or as charitable as the one you’d most likely tell me.

The moral of this story? Storytelling really does matter. Storytelling is a skill well worth developing and honing, and one which frankly doesn’t get enough respect or recognition. While a good story doesn’t preclude the need for good science or good credentials, it can enhance the visibility of your good science or your good credentials, leaving your reviewers and evaluators with warm, happy feelings about you and/or your work. (And happy reviewers/evaluators usually means happy results for you!)

10 thoughts on “The importance of storytelling

  1. This is spot on (and coincidentally, just yesterday I was polishing the chapter of my not-yet-available writing book called “Finding and Telling Your Story”). Message: you may have a very large pile of results, but unless you know what your story is, you don’t have a paper! And it’s even more important for job applications (and tenure files), where knitting a bunch of papers together into a larger story will move you far up the rankings.

  2. I agree with you for the most part. Though it can be hard to accept the “Oh, I got the job because I told a good story.” That message that sends is that you can tell a good story, not that you’re a good fit for the job necessarily. I think a lot of scientists have a problem with the idea that their data or work doesn’t speak for itself; that this false idea of a story (stories literally spring out of the brain, riffing on the input that’s there). It seems more like advertising, not science.

    Again, I do agree that stories add to and enhance science, but it’s also hard to tell a good story and really hard to know in the case of a job application especially what story works (in the case of a paper or grant, you do get feedback as to what works and what doesn’t). And of course, a story that works for one person can get mimicked by others if it worked. It can be hard to stick out in the crowd of quite similar stories as well.

  3. Great post, storytelling is so important to communicating anything well. But I think the popular connotation of the word ‘story’ to mean fiction, fable or advertising is why many people find it difficult to adopt this approach. It’s important to clarify that storytelling in science shouldn’t betray the facts or the science – a ‘story’ is just a writing (or presentation) framework that weaves the facts and their setting in a way that connects with the audience. Facts need to be framed within values, because an audience won’t care about the facts unless they can see some relevance to them…which also means that one story won’t necessarily suit all audiences!

  4. This is what gets told to us as grad students all the time. However, I feel like it is an incredibly hard skill to hone. Any resources you would recommend?

  5. Spot on. I always tell my students to remember that they are telling a story when they write a paper and to concentrate on getting the message across rather than trying to cram everything in.

  6. Agent Minty, that’s a great question. For me I learned by modeling: I found mentors who were good at telling stories, I practiced writing in the style of research papers I found compelling, etc. and most importantly, I asked for lots of feedback along the way. (And manuelinor’s advice about knowing your audience is really important, too!)

  7. manuelinor, I agree! I had a conversation a while back with someone on the job market who asked me to look at their materials. I did and told them “you really need to work on your story.” They balked at that. So I rephrased it as “here is what I’m hearing from your materials.” (or maybe more to Ian’s point, “this is what a person in my position at my particular institution hears from your materials.”) That point got across better. 🙂 I think the initial pushback from this person is part of what Ian gets at above—that as scientists we should be “above” stories and “above” self-promotion and let merit speak for itself (but we can’t ignore that as humans we’re drawn to stories).

  8. See an interesting Radiolab podcast:

    As to Ian’s comments, I just finished the fifth job search in my department in the last two academic years. You story matters. It won’t get you the job if you don’t have everything else and it won’t get you the interview if it is not a story the search committee is looking for (and if they don’t like your story, if told well, that is probably a good sign that that is not a good place for you). But, the first goal is to get the phone interview and a compelling story backed up with the baseline credentials will probably get you the phone interview.

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