The power of narrative approaches to communications

The use of narratives and storytelling in science can sometimes have negative connotations, based on the assumption that a story is something that is made up, while science produces objective and falsifiable knowledge.

But stories and narratives are simply a form of communication. Just like statistics, although they can be false or manipulative, they can also be grounded in fact. As technical, scientific knowledge moves away from the lab and gets told and retold throughout society, it often takes on aspects of a story, simply because stories – not figures and graphs – are the common currency of everyday life.

Stories can provide useful shortcuts for people to evaluate complex information. Research suggests that information structured as a narrative (i.e. with a beginning, middle and end) have a privileged status in human cognition, relative to other forms of information. They are understood and remembered more clearly, and read more quickly. As a consequence, the narrative form is being used more and more in areas of science and health.

When it comes to science communications, narratives can easily be structured like this: describe the problem, lay out the consequences, and talk about solutions. The final element is crucial because without an option to respond to the impacts of climate change, audiences can feel overwhelmed. This narrative form has been described as the ABT model (And, But, Therefore), a template that clearly demonstrates how to structure communication with a narrative flow. It begins with the exposition (“and”), the idea or story, follows with conflict (“but”), and ends with a resolution (“therefore”).

Below is an example of a personal story applying this sort of a narrative form:

As a parent of two boys I have always enjoyed being able to share with them the experiences and activities that I enjoyed as a child, and seeing the joy on their faces on running into the sea on a warm summer’s day, or throwing snowballs in the winter.

And I get great solace knowing that we were part of an unbroken chain connecting past and future generations.

But as I have brought them up I have seen the changing seasons become disrupted and I experienced that as a very deep and profound challenge to my own sense of wellbeing and my sense of what it meant to be a good father.

Therefore I made the decision quite late in life to learn what I could about what was happening and what I could do about it, so I returned to university, studied the social science of climate change and now here I am standing in front of you.

Applying a narrative structure shouldn’t be confused with framing, which refers to the idea that messages might be tailored in some way in order to connect with their audience. Frames set in motion particular trains of thought, to define problems, and their causes and solutions. There are many climate change frames, for instance, framing it as catastrophe, national security, or justice and equity, and they’ll appeal to (or put off) different audiences. For instance, avoiding waste is seen positively by most audiences, particularly with conservatives; emphasising the health benefits of cleaner air, less pollution, more cycling and walking is received positively by a broad cross-section of the public.

While metaphors and analogies are prevalent in storytelling methods, there’s good reason to be cautious in their use. For instance, the ‘loaded dice’ metaphor has been used to illustrate that while it is hard to predict specifics about extreme weather events, climate change is loading the weather dice and making some weather events more likely. However, perhaps a crooked gambling metaphor unintentionally elicits other narratives that, though erroneous, exist in the climate discourse, such as one of scientists ‘fixing’ data. Still, other metaphors, such as a heat-trapping blanket to explain the greenhouse effect, and a bathtub filling up with water, to illustrate need for stronger emissions reduction policies may help to ground unfamiliar concepts in familiar ones.

Key to the success of stories is their ability to talk about the real world, rather than abstract ideas, offering us a chance to relate climate change to people’s day-to-day experiences. However, as with all good communication, the use of narratives needs to be authentic. Audiences respond negatively when they feel manipulated by a story, and so for communicators, it is important to tell a true story that resonates with you, as well as with your audience.

Narrative methods are intuitive, memorable, and engaging, and are already the way in which non-experts on climate change receive information from mass media. Climate communicators can guide the way climate change narratives develop by using storytelling forms that open up dialogues, and connect with the public.

Burning questions

How does science communicated in narrative form influence perceptions of trust?

How do perceptions of the storyteller (e.g. gender, role & relationship to climate change, political identity) affect the way a story is received?

By Adam Corner & Susie Wang

Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.

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