Scientific Storytelling
All Data Deserve a Narrative

October 8, 2020

As a child, I lived for the hands-on magic of science: growing rock candy from sugar solution, the color-changing feats of acids and bases, dissolving an egg shell with vinegar to leave a wobbly, gelatinous mass. The appeal of science was purely in the doing, the show, and the mystery of it all. Years later, I found myself at 9 PM in a chemistry lab in the basement of an ancient MIT building, disenfranchised and exhausted. My three other lab mates were discussing ways to optimize the never-ending reaction in the fume hood behind us. As they tweaked the reagents and temperature yet again, one of them said, “Hey Deb. Do you want to head back to rest? We’ll definitely need you to lead us in writing the report after the experiment is over.”

And that was the catalyst for a revelation that exposed my truth. My heart was no longer in the discovery, the experimentation, the doing. What inspires me more is the communication of the discovery – weaving data points and analysis into a narrative that reshapes thinking and spurs further study. This moment in the lab was a crystallizing moment for me: I needed to meld the two disciplines I loved most, chemistry and writing, into my future career. I just needed to figure out how.

In the twenty years since, I’ve had the good fortune to build a career around these two seemingly disparate disciplines. And what I’ve learned is simple in theory but not in execution – all data (positive and negative) deserve a narrative. The best scientific communication is clear, concise, and direct, but also tells a story. It needs a rationale – a compelling reason for readers to care – and to be set up with a premise that matters. Below are a few key tenets my team at Bond and Matter keep in mind as we distill complex clinical data into clear, simple storytelling:

1. Go big with data collection and prep

Be restrained in communication. It’s always a great idea to be overprepared with your data points, claims, and references. But once they’re gathered and organized, take a measured, concise approach to your communication. Even the most complex pathway can be broken down into pieces. A complicated data slide always has a key point.

2. Draw parallels.

Clinical data are full of parallels – to other populations, to other trial designs, and even other disease states. Looking for these parallels will help you challenge the data and see it from different angles. And, if you do it often enough, will reveal data presentation ideas that you may not have considered but make your point even stronger.

3. Create a lexicon and stay true to it.

If you have been working on a product for some time, you’ll notice there are many ways to refer to its properties. This changes from client to client on the same team, and among stakeholders and key opinion leaders. As communicators, we have the opportunity to set the lexicon. Sticking to it will allow for that consistent, resonant message to stick in the minds of your audience.

Scientific communication, like any writing, can be dull and dry or thoughtful and inspiring. The magic lies in how we tell the story.

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