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A Crash Course in Science Communication for Entomologists

Randy Olson

Building “narrative fitness” is like going to the gym and lifting weights, says scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, the Opening Plenary session speaker at the 2018 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia.

Like most scientists, entomologists will happily talk your ear off about the subjects they study, and they have mountains of facts and details to draw from. But copious data is where stories go to die. Therefore, entomologists who want to be great science communicators must practice the principles of narrative.

In more ways than one, that’s the lesson offered by scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson at the Opening Plenary session on Sunday evening at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia.

“Building narrative fitness,” Olson said, is like going to the gym and lifting weights. Strength and skill come only through practice and repetition. Even for the best authors and filmmakers in the world, it’s a discipline they must constantly work at.

For scientists, in particular, though, their day-to-day milieu puts them at a disadvantage, inclined by habit to share more information, not less. “The more information we’re gathering, the worse we’re getting at communicating,” Olson said.

Olson earned his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard and went on to teach marine biology at the University of New Hampshire. But along the way he felt the call to work at telling stories about science, rather than practicing it, so he studied film at the University of Southern California, and later went on to author two books aimed at helping scientists find their storytelling chops.

For all the work he’s done studying communication, he said he’s found that all effective storytelling is based on the same principles of character, conflict and resolution. And, to help scientists adopt these principles, he recommends a simple template: AND-BUT-THEREFORE.

The first paragraph of this blog post follows the template: The opening sentence sets the scene with AND. The next introduces the problem with BUT. And the closing sentence presents the solution with THEREFORE. In this case, it’s no epic drama, but it makes for a handy summation of the journey entomologists must take toward becoming great science communicators.

Like many crafts, though, the A-B-T narrative template is easy to grasp but difficult to master, says Olson. Quoting from an exchange with an Emmy award-winning television writer, Olson said, “It’s so important and so, so hard to get right.”

Scientists looking to learn more can check out Olson’s blog, Science Needs Story. And be sure to follow along with the Joint Annual Meeting via Twitter at #EntSoc18 and #JAM18.

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