33 Using narratives and storytelling to engage the public with science

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Abstract

Objectives

Public engagement describes different ways to share research outputs with the public. It is a two-way process that aims to generate mutual benefit, such as learning or developing better research. Storytelling is a creative and appealing tool to communicate science to the public. Research suggests narratives are easier to comprehend and audiences find them more engaging than communication methods used traditionally in the scientific community. Different mechanisms help explain this: the use of characters makes the concepts relatable to the audience; a story gives context to the audience, increasing understanding and memory re-call; and plot development can help make causal relationships apparent, helping audiences process complex information. Our aim was to use storytelling and narratives to develop engagement activities targeting the public (defined here as non-expert audiences), with the objective of explaining concepts related to Health Services Research.

Method

Since 2015, the Public Engagement Group at the Health Services Research Unit (HSRU) has developed storytelling activities to communicate two broad research concepts: randomised controlled trials and evidence synthesis. We created characters and built stories centred around them and the concepts we wanted to convey, through brainstorming meetings. We tested our activities in small practice runs, and refined them once they were ongoing to adapt to the public’s reactions, level of understanding and enjoyment. We have added sensory elements to the stories, such as visual and sound cues to attract the attention of passers-by. We evaluated the activities using short questionnaires asking participants about their perceived level of understanding and enjoyment. Participants were also invited to leave their contact details if they were interested in learning more about a public involvement group.

Results

We have participated in four science festivals and have visited two local schools, engaging with over 2000 people. All our activities have involved a narrative: James Lind is the main character in our clinical trials activities to explain the randomisation process; we randomised 474 participants to two types of candy and asked how much they enjoyed it. Using costumes, balloons and randomisation bells resulted in attracting more people and catering to different learning styles. We have used Sherlock Holmes and a treasure hunt narrative to map out and describe the different steps of an evidence synthesis process to school children (aged 6–10). 232 children took part in the treasure hunt with the aim of finding out a health mystery. Questionnaire replies indicated 90% of the participants have enjoyed the activities. Over 50 citizens have signed up to be contacted for a public and participant involvement group after taking part.

Conclusions

We present here two successful and distinct examples of public engagement with science using storytelling and characters targeted at different audiences: adults and children. Storytelling is an effective way of engaging the public with science and explaining abstract concepts in a fun way. Using visual and sound cues attracts attention and curiosity that eventually develops into a conversation between researchers and the public. This is a first step in empowering and involving the public in the research process.

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