Imagine getting together with inspiring colleagues and organisations to create a project out of a dream, all based on an initial shared idea. Imagine being able to”…devote concentrated time to define shared challenges, explore creative strategies, and forge new collaborations, in a spirit of bold and open experimentation”. In November, last year, I had the opportunity to attend a conference beyond the usual. When I heard the conference will draw its attention to the topic of storytelling in 2017, I didn’t hesitate to apply. Together with a group of inspiring colleagues, from storytellers and science communicators to artists and experience designers, our team was one of 6 teams who got invited to the yearly Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI), hosted by Duke University in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Here are my main takeaways from the conference.
#1 Scholarly communication vs science communication
Scholars, information scientists, librarians, publishers, technologists, and others from academia and beyond gathers every year in November at this conference “…to articulate and begin to address needs and opportunities in the domain of scholarly communications.”
Now, some of you might wonder, how is ‘scholarly communication’ different from ‘science communication’? At least that is a question I had when applying to SCI. Quickly, and it became crystal clear when interacting with the other teams and projects, I understood there are differences, but at the same time, the concept of scholarly communication is evolving and getting closer to science communication. Scholarly communication is how academics share, publish and preserve their science in order to make it available for the academic community. More and more however, scholarly communication is moving to influence wider society and what SCI expresses is that new technologies are radically shaping the way we communicate, with whom and for what purpose, so hence we should apply the concept more broadly and engage with audiences beyond academia. Which, to my ears, started to sound a fair bit like science communication.
Interestingly enough; during the week of the conference, participants approached me several times asking: “Hmm, science communication, I have never really heard about that concept, what is it?” Within the field of digital humanities, to which many of the participants belonged, science communication is not a thing. Hence, this is where we still find a difference. Communicating science is all about reaching out far beyond academia; to the public, to the media and to all forms of decision-makers in society. The methods for it are many; it can be journalistic, it can be done by the public (known as citizen science), it can be artistic and in many cases professional science communicators work together with scientists to get the messaging right and impactful. Scholarly communication has not reached this level of engagement in so many corners of society, and is still more about sharing your findings, rather than how you share them.
#2 Hanging out with medievalists can be fruitful
At the conference, participants from our team contributed with science communication perspectives, while we realised we had much to learn from the other teams. Librarians, publishers, folklorists, medievalists and storytellers with an impressive wealth of knowledge. There was a team that I found particularly inspiring, perhaps because I felt very distanced from their topic: Storytelling for Medievalists. Medieval history is not only here to inspire sci-fi authors and fantasy films, there is in fact much to learn from this period which can tell us so much about how our society is functioning today. It can convey much about why some political structures and governments look different from others in Europe, you can learn about the powerful role religion played back then and how it has influenced the church today or how the European continent, developed into what is Europe today, among many things.
The idea of the Medievalist team’s project is to start creating better stories about the Middle Ages, stories that are nuanced and that do not give away misperceptions. This inspired me since with our project, we’re also trying to tell stories that are fact-based and that makes complex structures and issues easier to understand without for that matter dumbing down the information. Check out this post-SCI blog if you want to know more about their project.
#3 Growing shared understandings
Food can be a deeply political issue and can become polarized and tricky to navigate. With our project, Storytelling Kitchen, we want to offer an alternative form of engagement that can potentially help communicate more effectively a sustainable food agenda. We want to highlight the role of the SDGs, in particular SDG 2, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, their interconnections, and how these can facilitate action around sustainable food. We will bring stakeholders around a table to share something, in this case a meal, and they will sit down on the same premises. They will be guided and, some constraints, or you might want to call them triggers, will be in place that can bring a sense of the setting being safe and informal. We hope that it can lead to people being more inclined to open up and share from a layer inside of them they usually don’t share from. Importantly, these people would suddenly have something in common; the cooked meal in front of them. What does that mean? What will it prompt? We hope that sharing their stories in this safe space will increase mutual empathy and respect. This creates fertile soil for great conversations to happen. These conversations can spark new ideas and create novel connections necessary for understanding best ways to realize the SDGs.
#4 And then a concrete storytelling advice – on endings
Stories, including scientific stories, are commonly composed of a beginning, a middle and an end. In my last takeaway, I want to highlight the ending, where I learnt some interesting things on the topic from the storytelling professionals at SCI. An ending in a story isn’t only a closing, in fact, they can also function as an opening, since they invite us to reflect, to deliberate and to vision change.
This is something to bear in mind when we write stories with a scientific message; how do we create a tension that leads to motivation with the reader to act upon the knowledge received? How do we keep a momentum even after the story has finished? Of course, not only the ending is key here, the full story needs to create emotional reactions of the reader, but the ending is what the reader will remember the most. What I do know is that embedding a call to action in the ending and/or uncover new solutions and perspectives to a problem is often a good way to start. I still have much to learn and hope to be able to share more with you when I got the chance to practice my new skills.
Lastly, I recommend the amazing opportunity to attend the #TriangleSCI conference in North Carolina. Amazing people, beautiful setting and delicious food, what else can you wish for?
It’s timely, because the call for proposals is out. This year the theme is “Overcoming risk” and you can find the call here. Please share it in your networks, I can promise it is an unforgettable experience!
Anneli Sundin, communicator, Stockholm Environment Institute
We’re now on the quest for more funding to pilot our Storytelling Kitchen sessions and hope get things rolling in 2018! If you have an interest in our project do support or connect with us! Here on Twitter and on Instagram.
Want to read our original proposal for SCI2017? Check it out here.