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Forward Thinking: Telling stories about research and research funding

22 Apr 2019 3:33 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

This blog first appeared as part of the Forward Thinking blog series published by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), British Columbia’s health research funding agency. It is written by Lori Last, MSFHR’s Director of Marketing & Communications, and Amy Noise, MSFHR’s Manager of Marketing & Communications.

How do you get people excited about the importance of research and research funding? You tell stories.

Since childhood, most of us have loved stories. They not only provide entertainment and an escape from the everyday, they have also played a key role in human cultural development.

Turns out, human brains are wired to process stories. When you are presented with a series of facts, two parts of your brain are activated (Broca's area and Wernicke's area). These areas decode the meaning of the words, so you can understand what you are hearing or reading. But when you read or listen to a story, many different parts of your brain light up. If the story includes a description of a delicious meal, your sensory cortex lights up. If it includes a game of tag, your motor cortex is activated as if you were actually experiencing the event.

Scientists have learned that we process imagined experiences, like stories, in a similar way to how we process real experiences, which explains why stories can stir up genuine emotions and stimulate behavioural responses. This is in part because of the chemicals released when we experience a story - cortisol, which helps us form memories; dopamine, which regulates our emotional responses; and oxytocin, which is connected to feelings of empathy and relationship building.

Our visceral reactions to stories explains their long standing place in human history. From the earliest days, humans told stories to each other to share cultural norms, warn of potential danger or to explain the world around them. Storytelling patterns evolved over time, and we still fall back on those patterns today.

Compared to hearing a list of facts, a story activates our brains as if we are actually experiencing what we are hearing.

What makes a good story?

Whether you’re a fan of comedy, romance or sci-fi, chances are your favourite stories all follow a similar structure: context, struggle, resolution.

Aristotle laid out this broad format over two thousand years ago, and since then many others have expanded on this structure from Joseph Campbell’s 12 step Hero’s Journey to Christopher Booker's Seven Basic Plots. The common theme is a protagonist being shaken out of their day-to-day world and embarking on a journey, overcoming a challenge, and returning triumphant.

We’ve all seen this structure play out again as it is a very common technique used by writers and film-makers, and it is also a technique that can help organizations tell their story.

How to tell your organization’s story

As a health research funder, it is important to us to consider both what we communicate about our organization and the impact we have, and how we communicate.

1. Provide the context

Like most organizations, we share routine information; in our case, information about our funding opportunities, award recipients, and other operational updates through our core communications channels (our website, monthly newsletter and social media). Although these always feature an element of storytelling, they are very closely tied to operational business needs – the context if you will.

2. Share success stories

We also share success stories. We launched Spark, our twice annual digital magazine, to give us a vehicle to tell the story of the broader impact of health research funding. Each issue follows a typical story structure; a research question that needs solving (the context), the researchers we’ve funded who worked to find answers to that question (the protagonist embarking on a struggle/journey), and the impact on British Columbians who are benefiting from this work (the resolution).

In Spark, the protagonists are either researchers or patients. So how do you highlight your organization as a protagonist in its own right? You have to show your own journey.

3. Don’t forget the journey

It’s a trap a lot of organizations fall into. Sharing operational information has to happen for an organization to function, so that gets done. Every organization wants to showcase their value and impact, so success stories get shared. But it is easy to overlook the journey in between.

The trouble with overlooking the journey is that’s where you fall in love with the characters, where you learn about the protagonist (that’s us!), how they work, and their challenges. You need that perspective in order to really care about the resulting success.

This is where our Forward Thinking blog comes in. It’s a way of sharing our journey and helping people understand what we do, and why it matters.

Of course, journeys are not always smooth. So as well as featuring the great work we’re doing, you are just as likely to read a Forward Thinking blog about an initiative we are still working through, the challenges we’ve faced and how we are working around them. Sharing vulnerability in this way can be scary, but it presents a great opportunity to learn.

Growing and learning

At MSFHR we are committed to continuous learning and improvement and feel strongly that removing the mystery of what we do, and sharing our experiences to advance the science and practice of research funding, is a key part of our role as BC’s health research funder.

So, if there are any areas of health research funding that you’re itching to hear more about, leave a comment and let us know!

Written by: Lori Last & Amy Noise via Forward Thinking blog series.


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