How Humans Make Sense of the World: a Q&A with Story Collider’s Liz Neeley and Erin Barker

Most of the ways people communicate, from research papers to news articles, are effectively forms of storytelling. But there’s a special power associated with spoken-word storytelling and listening to someone tell a story well.

I first heard of The Story Collider four or five years ago, but didn’t have the opportunity to attend a show until earlier this year. It was remarkable both for the quality of the storytelling and the impact that each story had on the audience.

Then, in April, I had a chance to attend a presentation on storytelling by Liz Neeley, executive director of The Story Collider. It was an interesting, research-driven talk on how and why people tell stories. Later that day, I also participated in a workshop put on by Neeley and Erin Barker, whose title (as you’ll note below) is artistic director of The Story Collider.

After the workshop, Neeley and Barker let me pick their brains about The Story Collider, the importance of stories, and some of the ways that storytelling can be valuable for the science community.

Science Communication Breakdown: So, here’s a threshold question: what exactly is the Story Collider?

Neeley (left) and Barker, at a Story Collider event in Kinston, N.C.

Erin Barker: The Story Collider is a nonprofit organization with a mission to find and produce true, personal stories about science, from as many different voices as possible and share them via our live shows and podcast. Our goal is to show that science is a real and vibrant part of everyone’s lives.

SCB: I know that the Story Collider was created in 2010, by Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht. You weren’t on board at that point, but what were the goals of Story Collider then, and how have they changed over the past seven years?

Barker: I think the goal at the time was really just to put on a fun show about science. But the more shows they had, the more it became apparent that there was an opportunity for something bigger. They started to realize that these stories were powerful in ways they hadn’t expected – that they could show people the power of science in everyday life, and that it is a part of everyone’s everyday life. That they could show scientists are three-dimensional people, and that nonscientists also have things to say about science.

After that, they asked me to come on board as a nonscientist producer, and I was able to bring a more general perspective and help them expand the audience. And then when Liz came on board, with her science communication background, things really solidified around this goal of building bridges between scientists and nonscientists and showing that science is a part of all our lives.

Liz Neeley: For me, the most exciting way we’ve grown lately is to deepen our commitment to taking the art and science of storytelling equally seriously. Everyone talks about trying to bridge theory and practice – and we get to do that every day. I love that we get to consider questions like “What should we be reading? Who should we be talking to? How do we teach these skills?” with renewed enthusiasm.

SCB: Erin, you’re the “creative director” for Story Collider. What exactly does that mean?

Barker: Ahem – artistic director. 😉 In a nutshell, it means I’m responsible for the live shows and podcast and the general creative direction of the organization. I work with our producers in various cities to accomplish this, and with Liz on our sponsored projects.

SCB: Erin, your background is in journalism, and I get that journalists are, in effect, storytellers, but how did you segue from one to the other? Do you think what you’re doing now is a form of journalism? Or that being a reporter prepared you to help people tell their stories on stage?

Barker: I don’t think of myself as a journalist anymore, but I do think I learned a lot of important skills from my time as one. I’m less shy when it comes to asking people about their stories, and I’ve gotten pretty good at coaxing them out. Early story development is very similar to an interview, except it’s less adversarial, more cooperative. Which is really better for someone like me – I always had a tough time with the confrontational parts of journalism.

SCB: Liz, you trained as a scientist and then worked as assistant director of outreach for COMPASS, which facilitates public communication efforts from scientists. How did you first become familiar with Story Collider?

Neeley: I started crossing paths with Ben [Lillie] at conferences like AAAS and ScienceOnline in 2012 I think. It didn’t take long to notice that we were always on the same side of arguments about science communication. A lot of those discussions felt really tedious, but Ben was always well-read, opinionated, and good fun – my favorite combination. So I became a Patreon supporter of Story Collider in November 2013.

SCB: At what point did Story Collider contact you about taking a leadership role? And what does an executive director do in an organization like Story Collider?

Neeley: I joined Story Collider in June 2015, and was so excited to step into a role where I could test all the ideas I’d been developing about how nonprofits like this should exist in the world. I can’t help but laugh when I describe my many jobs at The Story Collider: strategy, development, board management, grant writing, project management, bookkeeping, branding, negotiations, contracts, sponsorships, and of course I love designing and developing our workshops, as well as producing and hosting shows. My favorite thing about having such a wide-ranging set of responsibilities is the opportunity it offers to shape the daily experiences of people who work for or with us. I see it as the chance to live according to our own values.

SCB: A lot of public policy issues are inherently tangled up with science – climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms, etc. These issues are often politically charged, and the public discourse is filled with accusations of “false news” and conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for scientific research, medical research and education seem to be in dire straits. Is it becoming increasingly important for scientists to speak out about themselves and their work?

Barker: Yes, I believe so. Liz can probably speak more to this, but I believe that scientists need to tell these stories – otherwise, someone else will.

Neeley: I agree. There’s the pragmatic argument that Erin makes – either scientists speak up or there are two equally unpleasant options: either nobody is talking about their issue at all, or they’ve ceded the discussion to others who are willing to engage. But there are a whole suite of science communication tasks folded into this question.

When I consider things like emergency communication or health advisories, yes, I think these are particularly urgent. Or say, the question “Where are my tax dollars going?” Scientists need to justify what can look like massive investments in research, and not by quoting factoids. I mean showing what your lab is doing, and what funding means to you as an individual. Personally, I’m most interested in dismantling harmful stereotypes about science and scientists – both inside and outside the field. Social and professional norms determine who gets to tell which stories on which stages. I want to challenge old and toxic ideas about who science belongs to, how science careers progress, and what scientists are like. So yes, I think more than ever, we need as many different voices telling as many different stories as possible.

SCB: Is Story Collider in a position to help scientists do that? And, if so, how?

Neeley: The Story Collider helps people find and tell their own stories, and we can offer our stage and our podcast as platforms. We have regular shows in New York, DC, Boston, LA, and the UK – and we travel for pop-up shows all over the country. We’re always looking for stories – you can pitch us at stories@storycollider.org or suggest someone you think would be great. We also offer workshops, if you are interested in bringing us to your university or institution.

SCB: Some in the science community say that speaking up will only serve to “politicize” science. Do you think that’s the case? And, if so, what can scientists do?

Barker: It’s my general opinion that science has always been political – practically everything is. But I think storytelling offers scientists a unique opportunity in terms of communication. When you share a true, personal story, you aren’t making a political statement. You’re just sharing your experience. Audiences are generally less defensive about this, when someone is just speaking to their personal experience. For example, we’ve had many controversial subjects on our podcast, but very little outrage or trolling in response. Storytelling is a great, nonconfrontational way to talk about these things.

Neeley: Anyone who argues that science isn’t political hasn’t done their background reading.

So yes, we can pollute communication environments (as Dan Kahan would put it – read his take on the HPV vaccine for a useful example). But we shouldn’t interpret that to mean “keep silent.” Rather, I think scientists should remember that we have all sorts of disciplines with relevant data on the subject – psychology, risk perception, cognitive neuroscience, sociology. Educate yourself and engage in critical self-evaluation. A great place to start is Simon Donner’s piece “Finding your place on the science – advocacy continuum: an editorial essay” in the journal Climatic Change.

SCB: The run up to the March for Science was plagued by a number of organizational problems, many of which reflected longstanding divisions within the scientific community regarding diversity and representation. I recognize that there is no “silver bullet” for solving these problems, which are both entrenched and complex, but do you think there is a role for storytelling in helping to address diversity issues in science?

Barker: Absolutely. Liz and I were ecstatic to be contacted last year by a scientist named Jeff Schinske who had conducted a study at community colleges. He had students listen to Story Collider stories (and other personal stories) and respond to them. At the beginning of the semester, before listening to the stories, they had conventional ideas of what a scientist is like – they used words like “genius” and “asocial.” But by the end, they used words such as “not one type of person” and “immigrant.” And they were more likely to say they saw a place for themselves in science. This, to me, demonstrates the real power of these stories–that they can change our perception of who scientists are and who can have access to science.

Neeley: I agree with everything Erin says, and we also are adamant that this isn’t just about recruitment. Genuine inclusion, retention, and promotion are all essential too. We always say that stories do three things: give voice to experience, bear witness to suffering, and connect knowledge to action. Stories can help us see structural inequalities: fixing them takes other kinds of work.

It’s essential to think about storytelling not just as something we do as performers, but also as something we experience as audience members. Scientists from underrepresented groups have been telling their stories, powerfully, in many formats. It’s long past time those were acknowledged.

SCB: What about other longstanding problems, such as sexual harassment and abuse?

Barker: Yes, because I believe the best way to combat problems such as these is by shining a light on them. It’s one thing to hear that an anonymous scientist was harassed. It’s another thing altogether to hear that person’s true, personal story about their experience, to hear everything she went through as a result and how this affected her life and career. It’s much harder to doubt or ignore.

Neeley: Stories are how humans make sense of the world, including our own lives and past experiences. I don’t think anyone owes anyone else their story – especially not our most intimate or painful experiences. But we see over and over again that when survivors are ready to tell their stories, it can be part of their own healing process as well as a gift to listeners who have had similar experiences or want to support those who have. We want people to know that they are not alone.

SCB: Have you seen instances where stories about the lack of diversity in science, or about abuse within the scientific community, have made a difference – for individuals if not on a larger scale?

Barker: I think they’ve made a difference in big and small ways. I would point again to Jeff Schinske’s study to show the big ways, but I’ve also heard from listeners that stories like Rochelle Williams’ have been meaningful to them. I think it’s easier to understand why lack of diversity is a problem when you can hear how it affects someone’s life and experience.

SCB: Are there any subjects that are off limits for storytellers at Story Collider events?

Barker: Not as a rule, but I think we would hesitate to book anyone who we thought was trying to use their story specifically to promote themselves, their business, or their agenda, or someone who was deliberately trying to spread misinformation.

SCB: How do you work with storytellers whose work could trigger distress in audience members, or could even open them (or you) up to legal liability?

Barker: I’m not sure exactly what you mean about legal liability here. We have issued trigger warnings for stories with extreme violence, particularly sexual violence, before.

Neeley: Our experience is that our listeners don’t shy away from distressing topics – they bear witness, reflect, and reach out to support our storytellers. I’m reminded of a wonderful email we got after our last show, thanking the storytellers for the courage it took to share painful experiences, and telling them they had, “a friend for that moment, someone who was interested in the outcome for them, someone who cared.” We trust our tellers, and believe in first-person narrative. If you are a listener who has been surprised or hurt by an unexpected Story Collider moment, reach out to us – we want to hear how we can do better.

One of the most important things we do is focus storytellers on their own experiences – their innermost thoughts, motivations, and emotions – rather than speculating about those of other characters in their story. We may never know why another person acted as they did, but impact is what matters, not intent. Our storytellers are describing their lived experiences, as only they can. We trust them to follow two crucial rules: stories must be true, and they must be personal. And we have wonderful lawyers we can turn to if we need further support.

SCB: What I meant about liability (primarily for the storytellers) was, for example, if someone told a story that portrayed someone as having committed a crime, engaged in academic misconduct or falsified research. Do you make people aware of the possibility of being sued for slander? Or help people find ways to tell their stories in a way that limits their potential liability?

Barker: I think because storytelling really encourages self-reflection, rather than criticism of other people, this doesn’t really come up for us. Most of our storytellers are focusing on what they’ve learned as a result of their own experiences. Also, most folks choose to change names or identities of the people in their stories if they’re sensitive. Beyond that, our stories are true – which I believe, under the legal definition of slander, means they don’t qualify. Other organizations that specialize in true, personal stories – such as The Moth, which has been around for 20 years – haven’t had any issues with that that I’m aware of.

SCB: Do you have any advice for researchers who are interested in honing their storytelling skills or are looking for storytelling opportunities?

Barker: Yes, we have lots of advice that we share with our storytellers and workshop participants! But at the end of the day the most important is: Practice, practice, practice.

Neeley: The best way to learn about stories is to listen omnivorously.

Barker: The best way to get good at storytelling is to do it. Of course, we also have some tips on our submissions page. Most of all, I would say, don’t be afraid to be yourself and put yourself out there. Your vulnerability and enthusiasm and genuineness will be more powerful than anything else.

SCB: My last question is a fun one, but it’s tough: I’d like each of you to pick one of your favorite Story Collider stories – we’ll link to it from the post.

Barker: This is really too hard.

Neeley: I’d rather point to year-end highlights from our whole team. Or maybe to point out that we don’t just teach, we do – Erin’s own story blows my mind.

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