Storytelling is in our nature, humans have always used stories to educate and entertain. The ancient Greek constellations are more than mere curiosities, they are patterns in the sky relating to well-told stories: if you know the story, you can more easily remember the patterns in the stars, and can navigate home when you get lost at sea. Every culture has its own sky stories, made from the same stars in the one sky we all share, and they are endlessly fascinating.
Science has two sides to it: the doing part where you come up with a hypothesis and then test it, and the communicating part where you tell the world what you found. There’s no point doing the first, if we don’t also do the second. In academia, this second part is all about writing research papers for journals and giving high-level lectures and seminars. But there is a public side to this too, after all the public ultimate pay for a lot of it. Over the last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time doing both: in my day job I’m paid to DO science, and in my spare time I enjoy TALKING about science. This has lead me to the point where I almost get more requests to do public talks, festivals, school visits and public workshops than I can reasonably handle. But I can’t help it! When I started out, any kind of public speaking scared the hell out of me, but I’ve become so used to it that people don’t believe me when I tell them that I used to suffer from severe stage fright. It’s doing the public outreach that has helped me reach that point, and that has helped my professional communication as well.
Along the way I have created a number of talks and workshops, and I’ve developed my own style. What I always try to do with my public talks is to tell a story that runs through the entire presentation, and it seems to work quite well. What I have come to realise is that the art of storytelling is a very powerful tool, and I think that scientists should make better use of it. I now sit in professional seminars and conferences, listening to very clever people talking about their exciting science results in such a boring way, wondering why we don’t give our students proper training in communication. This would help them when they leave and try to persuade someone to give them a job, and it would help the public impression of science if our graduates are not just clever, but articulate and confident too.
For me, this moved to a new level when I met, by chance, Sita Brand from Settle Stories, and Conway Mothobi, schools outreach manager at Manchester Metropolitan University. The three of us masterminded the first Settle Star Party, which ran in October 2015 and was a great success. At that event, I worked together with Sita Brand, Emily Hennessey, and Cassandra Wye, and learned a lot about the art of storytelling from these three amazing people. Over the course of the star party I ran the Star Lab, working with the storytellers in the inflatable planetarium, running family-friendly shows that were a flowing mix of story and science. It was a brilliant experience, and really opened up the world of storytelling for me. Now I’m very excited to be working again with Cassandra Wye, developing family-friendly workshops where we will interweave storytelling and astronomy to make something both entertaining and educational. Whatever we come up with, it’s guaranteed to be a lot of fun!