18 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Why academics need to learn the art of storytelling

At a recent town hall meeting in the United States, a boisterous crowd demanded a strategy from their state representatives for how to influence the governor’s views on immigration. Should citizens send the governor research documenting the effects of state policy on immigrant children, or should they call his office to cite statistics showing the negative impact of these policies on schools and universities?

No, the representatives told the eager throng of citizens: Write stories of immigrant students affected by state policy and send these to the governor instead.

Storytelling may not be how academics in the natural and social sciences typically describe their work, but the use of stories is a powerful tool to make our research more accessible and to reach wider audiences. Now, more than ever, scholars must develop strategies to communicate the results of our research to the public as a means of challenging 'alternative facts' and appealing to politicians’ better nature in making policy decisions.

Improving accessibility

Two key ways to improve accessibility of scholarship are telling compelling personal stories about others and narrating stories about our own research. First, we need to develop real-life scenarios of the students, faculty, families and communities affected by changes in education policy and programmes.

By turning statistics from our research into stories, we are employing a successful strategy in political communication whereby researchers contextualise a problem in an effort to persuade their audience to take action – to support a piece of legislation or to vote for a candidate who understands the impact of a policy on the lives of real people.

In the United States, higher education scholars might talk about students affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban, enrolment crises at public universities, food and housing insecurity or crippling debt to obtain a bachelor degree. The key is to translate numerical data on these issues into evocative stories, which can be followed by relevant, persuasive statistics once a compelling image has been presented.

The second strategy for improving accessibility requires setting the scene for our research by explaining our personal connection to a topic before we present details of our discoveries. Undergraduate students, like audiences outside academia, often find the stories of the scientists as compelling as the story of the science in which they are engaged.

We can use these personal accounts as a hook if we think about the narrative arc of a story: rising action – how our interest in a topic began to grow; climax – an unexpected experience related to the topic; and falling action – how we have turned this personal experience into our primary research focus.

At this point, we can begin to delve into the details of our research and why it should matter to the audience. Finding a climactic moment in our own research story is particularly important when the topic itself, such as educational financing or personnel management, may not have intrinsic appeal to audiences outside the academy.

Influencing wider audiences

As academics improve the accessibility of their writing, we must also disseminate it to wider audiences, including policy-makers and the voting public. We must learn to convey the gist of our findings in non-technical language using examples from everyday life, common metaphors and more focused, concise arguments.

In addition, university instructors can incorporate public-facing writing assignments and presentations in their courses, which teaches students how to communicate with wider audiences and demonstrates the work of universities.

We find that students are eager to learn strategies for writing effective op-ed pieces, book reviews and blog posts and they easily use social media to convey content relevant to their courses. These activities engage students in conversations with audiences beyond their classmates and professors, thereby increasing the likelihood that scholarly readings and discussions in the classroom will influence debate with the wider public.

Risks and rewards

To be sure, there are risks for academics in engaging with broader audiences through media over which we have far less control than in a book or journal article. Being interviewed by a journalist may result in the over-simplification, or misinterpretation, of our research. Internet trolls can be vicious in their attacks, and this can be particularly damaging to early career faculty. Promotion and tenure committees will likely not value the dissemination of one’s findings through non-peer reviewed publications.

Nevertheless, readers often respond more powerfully to well-written stories than to tables, charts and graphs. At this time of budget cuts and restricted access to higher education, we need the public and the politicians whom they elect to understand fully what we do as higher education researchers and why it matters for every one of us.

Professor Frances Vavrus is a faculty member in the department of organisational leadership, policy and development at the University of Minnesota, USA. Lesley Bartlett is a professor in educational policy studies and a faculty affiliate in anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.
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