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We are all storytellers. It is a massive component of our lives that is responsible for the relationships that we have formed, the bonds we create, and the way that we perceive the world around us. Stories build our reality. We consume stories constantly when we are interacting with the marketing of a product, in conversation with a friend, or a deep reflective moment with ourselves. The stories that we tell ourselves, shape our identity, and the way that we see ourselves in the world.

Connecting Consumers, Inspiring Change, and Shaping Perspectives

Powerful storytelling has the ability to affect change. Brands have identified ways to tell a story that creates a connection between a consumer and a product, and persuades the consumer to make a purchase. World leaders tell stories to rally support and influence entire political systems. Museums and science centres tell stories to educate audiences and inspire people to lead more sustainable lives.

How can we become better storytellers? Let’s look at some important elements.

In understanding that humans have a desire for connection, a good story needs to build an interesting character or subject. The story’s character should possess traits and values that we identify as our own. When we start to consume the story, we form a bond with the character; we are invested in their personal story, as if it were our own. This touches on our capacity to be empathetic. 

Empathy and Engagement: The Key Elements of Impactful Storytelling

When creating a story, whether it be through words, audio, or a combination of communication mediums, one consideration that should remain constant is that the audience is the centre of your universe. What does this mean? Understanding a reader’s perspective or the lens through which they consume the story, is important to establish how the messaging will land for them. We tell a story to convey interesting and important information to someone, to gain their support or appreciation. While telling a story may bring us a lot of joy, it is important to remember that the content of the story needs to be meaningful for the audience. This will keep them engaged throughout the story.

In a story, we convey multiple messages. In science centres, we often communicate complex messages around climate change, oceanography, and weather systems for example. Museums share stories on multiple layers of history. With the volume and complexity of information, these stories can be challenging for the audience to digest and understand. As the storyteller, it is your duty to make the language as accessible as possible. This is a storyteller’s greatest challenge. Through an interesting and engaging story, how can we tell it in a way that our audience walks away with a newfound understanding of the subject matter? Fortunately, in science centres, we can use multiple mediums to tell a story and convey messages. Going beyond standard written words, visual elements, sounds, and touch can significantly enhance a message. A story can also encourage an audience to use multiple senses, keeping them more engaged.

Audience active engagement will retain interest throughout the story. Involve your audience in the storyline. This will make them feel as if they are part of the story. When the audience can select prompts that influence the direction of the story or storyline, they will actively feel as if they are creating the story themselves. Creating enough ‘hooks’ in the content to rope the audience in, and then following this on with a detailed articulation of events, while leaving just enough room for the audience to fill in the gaps with their own narratives without changing the story, is an art form that keeps them engaged.

The Imperfect Hero: The role Authenticity and Vulnerability play in a Compelling Story

Transport the audience through a journey. This is an important element of a good story; painting the picture of the journey. In a storyline, the character or subject will encounter success, challenges and defeats. As the storyteller, if you have been successful in creating a connection or bond with the main character, your audience is waiting to be taken on a journey with the character. How does the character use their moral compass to make a decision? How do they use their strengths to address and overcome a challenge? This is a part of the story where the audience will identify the values of the character that are similar to their own. The audience starts to imagine themselves as the main character. When describing how the character or subject addresses the challenges encountered, authenticity and vulnerability are important. No one is perfect, and imperfection is a trait that makes a character more relatable. 

The foundation of any compelling science centre or museum exhibit is a good story. The way in which the story is told through different communication mediums will also determine how engaged the audience is. A good story will also compel critical thinking on many of the global challenges that we face;  this is where institutions like science centres play an important role in conveying messages that can lead to a more sustainable future.