Let Me Tell You A Story

It’s got to be said, I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut lately. The desire to do justice to what appears to be a pretty rich set of ‘data’ has been accompanied by a fairly crippling fear of not being able to do just that. It feels like there is actually a compelling story to be told, and yet defining that story is the latest and greatest challenge of this PhD process. So when The University of Sheffield’s Public Engagement and Impact team sent round an email about storytelling workshops, I jumped straight in there.

FOTM.795aed95The workshops, led by storyteller Tim Ralphs, are part of a collaboration leading up to the second Festival of the Mind, taking place in Sheffield in the Autumn, and focus on the use of storytelling techniques to better communicate academic research to a wider audience. As somebody who’s always been interested in connecting their research and PhD to a wider community beyond the confines of academia, this was instantly of interest, and proved to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging morning. Tim assured us that storytelling doesn’t have to be spectacular, but it is a journey within the minds of the audience, and with that in mind, the session was underway. With fellow researchers from across the social sciences and sciences, we discussed barriers to engagement. As you may expect, these were many and varied, with some stretching across disciplinary boundaries (how to find that initial hook; how to avoid jargon but at the same time refrain from patronising your audience), and others showing marked differences (the difficulty in expressing complex ideas in science, versus the issue of communicating worth in social science). Overall, between this disparate group of researchers, there was a general consensus that there is actually a lack of value placed on communication within academia: we’re too busy applying for grants/teaching and marking/working towards REF/holding down administrative duties to have time for such things. The various pressures that are being felt rather acutely within academia at present are negatively impacting on the time and space required to think creatively, and thus improve our communication skills. This may appear to be a negative starting position, and yet it seemed to spark the interest of the group as everyone was given space to discuss the kinds of problems that may often go unspoken within the workplace.

So, from a starting point of defining some problems, on to the positives! The remainder of the session was focused on the ways in which the techniques of storytelling can be applied to overcome some of these issues, and – for me at least – proved to be a great way to reignite some enthusiasm for writing. The key to communicating research to wider, non-academic audiences, according to Tim, is to remember that you can put yourself in the story, and remember that it’s ok to only present one point of view. Academic writing can be so staid, and even within social sciences the social story is often lost: this has been my primary frustration of late, and I’ve been eager to work on ways of writing that communicate the possibility of academically rigorous and sound work that displays a real personal connection with the subject matter. From sharing stories of our own research around the room, it was clear that everybody has something interesting – often fascinating – to share; it’s just that we’re so close to our own work that it just doesn’t seem engaging anymore. This is where the value of narrative comes in; engaging your audience emotionally, connecting with them on a human level, and using the story as a space for reflection. There was even a suggestion that as well as helping in communicating your research to others, it has the personal benefit of allowing you to step back from your work, remind yourself why you do this work, and creating a healthier environment in which the work can continue. This, for me, was the key take-away point of the day: remember what it is about your research that enthused you in the first place, and you stand a far greater chance of communicating that enthusiasm to others. And on that note, I’m off to make use of this reignited positivity and crack on with my next chapter. Who knows, my next post may even tell a compelling story…



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