Storytelling as real communication | Inquirer Opinion

Storytelling as real communication

A few weeks ago, I was part of the “We Can Do It: Empowering Women in Agriculture Forum,” organized by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture and the Philippines Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture.

The event gathered groups from different agriculture-related sectors for discussions, which, the organizers said, could help empower women. In particular, I would be a part of “Science Communication 101 for Researchers,” along with Dr. Elaine Llarena of the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Llarena and I have long been friends. Mention discussions and empowerment to us and we throw out the slides and demand a conversation rather than a lecture.

So, we decided to unite our presentations and turn our forum into a talk show of sorts. We talked about our lives as science communication scholars and practitioners on opposite trajectories: Llarena, the communication major who engaged in the sciences, and I the science major who engaged in communication. We talked about the evolution of science communication, beyond mere dissemination of information, to an actual social conversation around science.


The strategy worked. When we called on audience members, they were engaged and responsive. They nodded as we talked about how science is not just about facts, but habits; about how science education has to go beyond multiple-choice tests and the illusion of a static, stagnated science.

We talked about a popular notion: that we cannot rely on scientific information alone, because science changes. That statement is incomplete: yes, science changes, but to make a decision, we must look at the research carried out so far, and then make decisions based on the most reliable information at that point in time. Science literacy, therefore, also means knowing how to look at data, rather than dismissing research with the broad brushstroke of “science changes.”

Then, we talked about science communication itself, and its nature of going beyond creating things for public consumption. We talked about doing research, knowing people, talking to people. Llarena shared her fieldwork experiences, which included facilitating barangay plays around livestock health, and which allowed rural communities to understand their livestock problems. I shared my research and anecdotes from my colleagues, which included facilitating discussions that allowed communities to build models of their barangay, which then allowed them to identify their problems and craft their solutions.

People raised their hands and talked about their experiences, which they had not realized were actually the most effective ways of communicating science. One said that her storytelling techniques helped children remember science and appreciate it, better than simply giving them tests to take. Another said that he recognized storytelling in how they engaged rural barangays in discussions about health.


While scientists might frown on storytelling as manipulation, research across the world has demonstrated its effectiveness as communication, especially for science. In a 2019 article in the Journal of Science Communication, Marina Joubert and colleagues found that stories foster stronger emotional connections, and have, through history, allowed people to make meaning of their experiences. The University of Washington website agrees: We all grew up with stories long before we had to read or write scientific papers.

Michael Dahlstrom, in a 2014 article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that the logic of science aims to provide knowledge that can be applied to different situations—but this is not always how people make decisions. They can look at their case, and perhaps see insights from their situation, unique to their context—something that a narrative can provide.


Scientific discovery is unengaging when it is reduced to mere information. When it turns into a narrative, scientists then become part of an arc: they have a problem to solve, a conflict to wrestle with, a transformation that helps them see the world in a new light. Science then becomes relatable, part of the human experience.

It is this focus on context that storytelling incorporates, making it a powerful tool, as it allows people to see how science might fit into their lives. Storytelling in science helps people to be engaged not just in science, but in the idea that we can ask questions about the world, explore it, and have those questions answered.

Storytelling, too, can make people interested in the habit of seeking out information, rather than waiting for it to be handed to them. This engagement is something we get out of exchanges and narratives—not out of information materials that people are forced to read, all because they are assumed to be sponges of knowledge rather than people struggling with everyday uncertainties.


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