Storyteller sells science

Paul Trotman
Paul Trotman
Dunedin film-maker Paul Trotman this week urged University of Otago researchers to avoid swamping the public with facts and, instead, to tell stories when communicating medical science to the community.

He was addressing about 80 people in an open lecture, given as part of a day-long research conference organised by the Otago psychology department.

His company, PRN Films, made medical documentaries for TVNZ and TV3, and, through this, he had ''learnt a lot about communicating via emotion and story''.

In his talk, titled ''Story, Emotion and Science'', Dr Trotman said people had been ''communicating with each other via stories for millennia''.

''We've been using them to sell political, emotional and religious messages for thousands of years.

''We use them to sell fizzy water, jeans and cars - so why shouldn't we use them to sell science?''

Complex information was better conveyed by using stories, and utilising comments from compelling characters, including people who had experienced any medical condition under discussion.

Science was based on facts and figures and was also ''cold, emotionless and analytical because it has to be'', he said.

But when it came to communicating science, such facts and figures had ''a very low emotional availability''.

''People don't identify with them, they don't understand them, and they aren't moved by them.''

''Stories, on the other hand, have a high emotional availability; they fire off dopamine in the brain and bypass reasoning.''

And not all academics were good at communicating science.

Many knowledgeable people, understandably, wished to repeatedly qualify and refine almost every statement they made in a desire to present matters more accurately.

But such lengthy, complex statements, if offered in a television interview, did not communicate science effectively to a lay audience.

Human stories could be told intelligently and could actually convey a good deal of ''high end'' information, he said.

• Dr Trotman is a Dunedin medical doctor who also makes teaching and communication films for health and science professionals.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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