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Storytelling for Scientists

I had the chance to spend four days at the 2013 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo® with the Lead360 cohort, a group of emerging leaders from 20+ countries. It was an inspiring group of young professionals from universities, industry, and government agencies. One of the themes that emerged from our conversations was the need for effective communication, sharing with others what we do and how we can contribute to society.

Storytelling was regarded as a solution, which is something I am well versed in. When I graduated from college, I performed stories for a few years (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, King Arthur, etc.). I used my other skills (math and computer experience) to get a job at the World Bank in 1989 and in the mid ’90s these two separate realities came together.

I was part of the small group that brought Knowledge Management to the World Bank. As a way to best communicate our goals with 15,000 people from a wide variety of cultures and disciplines scattered throughout 100+ countries, we took a deep look at storytelling and found it to be a capable tool.

In two short years, our initiative went from an unfunded idea to a global, $60 million/year program that received international recognition. We were recognized as one of the top Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises several years in a row, and a study 12 years later showed that more than 75% of the communities we developed were still in place doing good work.

Storytelling was our modus operandi for spreading the word, explaining to others what we were doing. Here are five lessons I learned about using storytelling to communicate:

  1. Start with “storylistening.” Pay attention to what captures the attention of those you speak to. Find stories they will be interested in. If they are primarily interested in their own food, share anecdotes about what is in the grocery store. If they are more interested in global issues like overpopulation, find stories that address the large, overarching concerns.
  2. Make stories short and to the point—less than two minutes. During informal communication, people prefer dialog, not lectures. Shave off irrelevant details. People appreciate learning when the experience is concise and to the point.
  3. Whenever possible, tell a story that the listener understands intuitively. If you’re speaking to a teacher, talk about students, learning, or schools. If you’re talking to an aid agency, talk about development, the third world, a relief effort. It takes a little extra work, but it pays off.
  4. Practice. Don’t be afraid of telling a story over and over. It’s what the best communicators do. When a particular story does an excellent job of getting a message across, use it like you would a good tool.
  5. Imagine yourself as a science teacher. Make your message fun, engaging, provocative, exciting, and stimulating. Capturing attention is not a bonus (as it can be at a scientific presentation), it is a prerequisite for engagement.

I have high hopes for the future of food science and technology, especially after spending time with the Lead360 emerging leaders. They were full of verve, excitement, and enthusiasm for the future. Their interest in storytelling will serve the profession well. I am looking forward to what they learn and choose to share. The stories they develop will shine light into the future, helping to illuminate all the possibilities for how food science and technology can contribute to a growing and complex world.

Seth KahanSeth Kahan
Executive Strategy Consultant

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