Sunday, August 13, 2006

Building knowledge through narrative

Susan Sechrist is a communications consultant who specializes in improving scientific and technological literacy through the use of figurative language and narrative voice. She views the technical communicator’s responsibility as promoting understanding, as well as inspiring inquiry and participation. To learn more about Susan’s work, see The Writer’s Role: A Narrative Voice or visit her Web site.

Attendees arrive at Susan Sechrist's presentation in Las Vegas this year.Thank you, Susan, for sharing your views with readers of the Blog at STC Chicago.

Q: Why is narrative voice important to science and technology writers?

A: I think the challenge in making scientific and technological ideas accessible is to find common ground between scientists and the general public. Often, scientific ideas are only discussed in highly technical, specialized journals or magazines, where there is a shared language, or at least an expectation on the part of the audience to learn the jargon. While this is useful on some level, it leaves out a whole population of people that are affected by the science or the technology, people who can not only benefit by understanding the science better, but can also offer the scientists insights. I think narrative is better equipped to provide this two-way street, this dialogue.

Throughout history, cultures have used narrative and storytelling to pass on important information. Myths are often encoded with detailed information about geological or meteorological events, information that may be critical to the survival or success of a tribe or culture. It is also a way to store historical information and decisions. Narrative is natural to the human cognitive processes; we remember stories better than we remember lessons. Think back to a day in elementary school when your teacher told you a personal story about his or her experience--that story is probably more vivid in your memory than the day you learned the textbook lesson about George Washington crossing the Delaware.

I always thought science was particularly suited to explanation by metaphor--it was the way I understood many complex ideas. For example, there is a beautiful process in cellular metabolism called phospholipid fluid mosaic transport. The cell membrane is a mosaic of proteins, each specialized to pass (or block) a particular substance from the interior of the cell. I thought of each of these proteins as a messenger, bringing information back and forth. The metaphor of the messenger intrigued me enough to learn more about the process. Narrative allows us to visualize more readily, metaphor helps us build connections that we might not otherwise seek out. I think narrative makes us more curious, more questioning. It also allows us as individuals to contribute to the story--this is why I think a narrative or storytelling approach is vital in presenting scientific and technological ideas. Everyone has a right and a responsibility to participate in scientific inquiry. We must find ways to invite people, all people, into the dialogue. I don't think this means dumbing down the complexity of the scientific approach. I think it means coming at it from many different angles.

Come back soon to read Parts II and III of our interview with Susan.

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