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Why Scientific Stories Beat Dry Data (And How to Craft Compelling, Data-Driven Narratives)

Medical Science Liaison (MSL) interactions register as one of the least-favored sources of Medical Information for healthcare professionals (HCPs) today. That’s true despite the incredible wealth of scientific expertise MSLs have to share. 

You don’t have to look far to understand why MSL presentations get such low marks. The most common MSL communication method remains a relic of academic teaching — the dull lecture.

The missing ingredient? Attention-grabbing narratives that put the data in vibrant context and tell HCPs why it matters to them.   

It may seem like telling stories has more to do with fiction-writing than effective scientific communication. But the science of storytelling tells us otherwise. 

Here’s what you need to know about the science of storytelling — and how to leverage it to craft highly effective scientific stories that increase impact, promote knowledge-retention, and take your MSL-HCP interactions to the next level. 

The Evolutionary and Biological Foundations of Scientific Storytelling

Data alone isn’t enough to reliably engage anyone, especially busy HCPs. Dry text and complex numbers lose your audience’s attention. Stories are proven to keep it. 

Chris Anderson, head of TED — a massively successful organization built on the power of storytelling to serve as an entertaining conduit for expert knowledge-sharing — agrees. “Unlike challenging explanations or complex arguments, everyone can relate to stories,” he said. “Done right, a talk can electrify a room and transform an audience’s worldview.” 

It’s clear that stories hold universal appeal, and the science of storytelling tells us why. 

Humans — and our brains — have been shaped by evolution to create, share, and learn from stories. That’s because stories have always been about more than entertainment. Early hunter-gatherer groups likely relied on storytelling to reinforce social norms and encourage coordinated group behavior. Groups with a rich storytelling tradition yielded higher degrees of social cooperation, thus securing higher survival rates and better outcomes. In addition, individuals who excelled at storytelling were seen as more desirable mates, thus reinforcing the trait through generations. 

Given this evolutionary history, it’s no surprise that stories mesh with the natural ways humans learn and understand information. Stories also improve recall of information and activate our brains much differently than “disembodied” facts. 

In fact, from your brain’s perspective, there isn’t a big difference between listening to a story and telling one yourself. As the following images show, stories put the listener “in the action,” almost as if they are experiencing the narrative event firsthand. 

Further, when we listen to stories, our bodies release hormones that support learning goals. Dopamine promotes emotional regulation and engagement, cortisol influences memory formation, and oxytocin delivers a boost of empathy and connectedness.  

In the context of MSL-HCP interactions, storytelling represents a critical opportunity to take advantage of the brain’s natural information-processing preferences to promote learning, information retention, and connection. 

What is Scientific Storytelling?

Scientific storytelling isn’t the act of science fiction. It’s simply a proven instrument for structuring ideas to maximize the audience’s uptake of information. 

The foundation of communication in Medical Affairs is built around our ability to effectively share data. The work you do to collect, interpret, and present data technically has the foundational makings of storytelling baked in. Consider this: 

In a sense, you’re already in the business of storytelling. Adopting an intentional scientific storytelling approach is simply the next step in embracing your role as an effective storyteller. 

Scientific Storytelling Structure 

While it’s true that we engage in storytelling anytime we interpret data, it’s also true that not all stories are created equal. Some stories are much more compelling and memorable than others. 

Successful scientific stories are created using specific structural building blocks and best practices that create a satisfying narrative flow to reliably generate interest and engagement. 

Story Trees and ABTs 

Think of a scientific story as a tree. The core concept — your clear and powerful “big idea” — is the sturdy tree trunk on which the story is built. Each key scientific message forms a supporting branch, while the leaves represent scientific visualizations that illustrate each concept. 

Once you have the building blocks of your story tree in place, it’s time to put it together in a compelling structure that produces the right narrative flow. The “And, But, Therefore” (ABT) storytelling structure offers a simple yet effective recipe for crafting engaging stories. 

In the ABT formula, “And” represents the initial problem, “But” represents the challenges associated with solving the problem, and “Therefore” represents the solution or resolution. 

ABT stories are divided into three acts:

  • Act 1: We are introduced to the landscape and context in which the story occurs, as well as to the initial problem — AND
  • Act 2: Challenges are introduced and tension rises to a climax — BUT
  • Act 3: A solution is found, which addresses the underlying problem and resolves the tension — THEREFORE

7 Tips for Effective Scientific Storytelling 

Use these tips to craft scientific stories that capture HCPs’ attention and sustain their interest from start to finish. 

1. Know Your Audience 

If you haven’t already done so, start by defining your audience using HCP personas. Each scientific story should be crafted with a designated persona in mind. Doing so allows you to make your audience the hero of the story by focusing on their real-life needs and challenges. 

2. Weave Data Together

Bullet points alone fail to captivate audiences. Moreover, merely listing information opens the door to misinterpretation. When listeners aren’t presented with a cohesive narrative, their brains automatically try to fill the gaps by creating their own narrative “connective tissue.”

3. Emphasize the “Why” Behind the Data

Doing so helps to create a compelling narrative arc and prevents misunderstanding. Remember, HCPs will only care about data to the extent that they understand why the data matters, what problem it solves, and how it connects to their specific challenges. 

4. Start Broad, Then Get Narrow

Captivate interest and forge connections by starting with big-picture context. Once the audience is ready, you can zero in on granular details they need to know to make informed decisions. 

5. Use Simple Language

Simple, direct language (including layman’s terms) is more impactful, even when you’re speaking to an advanced audience. Taking this approach helps forge connections and supports comprehension. 

6. Build Tension Before Presenting the Solution

Tension is a key ingredient in all successful stories, including scientific stories. Immediately jumping to the solution without first creating tension isn’t satisfying for your audience. 

Take the time to communicate the problem and build tension by explaining the challenges that stand in the way of solving it. Presenting a solution after building tension is what creates a gratifying feeling of resolution. 

7. Close With a CTA

End your story by giving your HCP audience concrete next steps to deepen their engagement. 

Master the Art (and Science) of Storytelling 

The data is in: Skillful storytelling beats dry facts when it comes to creating memorable and engaging MSL-HCP interactions. Which means that for Medical Affairs teams, storytelling isn’t just an art; it’s a must-have science. 

Want assistance crafting scientific stories that boost engagement and spur knowledge retention? MedComms Experts can help.