Storytelling 2.0: The next generation in outreach and communication

By Cami Ryan

  • Storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity.
  • We humans depend upon our close personal networks for social survival (acceptance).
  • Our personal identities are inextricably tied to our social networks.
  • As communicators, we must find ways to share our stories that won’t alienate our listeners from their social networks – and their identities.

In early May, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful? The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I wound up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story - told well - releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. And these chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we recognize the power that storytelling has in building trust with a skeptical public. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience through storytelling.

Farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If information doesn’t reflect our personal and network identities, we’ll ignore it because our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humor. Think outside your own bubble.

Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  1. Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  2. Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  3. Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

As communicators, we must also avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is where we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand that knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. Because of this, we must keep in mind that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek out ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.


Cami Ryan

Cami Ryan is the Social Sciences Lead for Monsanto Company. In May, 2017, Cami was awarded CropLife Canada’s Grassroots Award for excellence in science communication and stakeholder engagement.

Blog: www.camiryan.com

Twitter: @DocCamiRyan

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