Category Archives: Thoughts & Feelings

How I learned there might be something to this story telling business afterall

On July 9, 2011 I met Ben Lillie for the first time at a coffee shop in the West Village. I got lost, because the West Village is confusing. But I wasn’t just confused about how West 12th street could possibly intersect with West 4th street. I was also confused about what Story Collider actually was.

In fact, at the time I really had no idea what this whole “storytelling” business was in general. I was in journalism school, doing important journalism things involving FOIAs and stalking people on the Internet. I couldn’t really fathom why people would get on stage to tell an embarrassing, personal story to a room full of strangers. But I was curious, and being curious is how I often get myself into weird situations, like producing a podcast of live stories about science.

The first few stories I worked on for the podcast were fun. I can’t remember what they were about. They were great dinner-party stories, the kind that make everybody laugh and think “that woman is awesome!”  But my journalism-addled brain still didn’t really get it.

Then I produced this podcast.

I think about this story all the time. Probably once a week. I’m sort of obsessed with it. This was the first time I really got what storytelling was supposed to be about. It is funny. It is really funny. And it is intense. Really intense. And in the middle of everything you are totally there, right there with him. I felt all the feels.

Everybody has their own opinions about what kinds of stories are the best. For me, it’s the ones that put me in a totally unfamiliar place, in a situation I’ve never been in and will never be in. A place that I never imagined going, until I was taken there by somebody else. I think that’s why Rosenthal’s story was the first one that really struck me – we are so different, and yet in that moment (a phrase I learned from storytelling shows) I was so there.

Greg Walloch’s story was the same way. Walloch walks with crutches, and his story chronicles one night of absurdity and terror when he gets stuck somewhere, unable to hop a fence.

As a person without a disability, I don’t walk around thinking about being able to physically navigate the world. Walloch does. After hearing his story, I started seeing grates and uneven stairs and fences that I would have never noticed. This is a really obvious example of someone putting you in their very different shoes, but I was new to this and needed obvious examples.

Now, Story Collider has had a million downloads. A million! Probably from people who totally get it, but also probably from people like me who didn’t at first. Slowly but surely, I’m getting it. When I heard Tara Clancy, a bartender from Queens talk about falling in love with theoretical physics, or Christine Gentry telling her story of her Southern father, I got it a little better. They were people so different from me, but whom I could learn something about myself from.

I’m still the annoying one who complains about stories for being “too story like.” I still sometimes don’t get it. But I’m getting there. With help, of course.

Calvin and Hobbes on Scicomm

So I’ve been on a huge Calvin and Hobbes kick recently, and I just came across this amazing exchange.




I’m still collecting my thoughts from the World Conference of Science Journalists. I have a lot of them. Here’s one of (perhaps) several posts that relate to those thoughts.

When we launched the Uncertainty issue for Nautilus Magazine, I added a column to my TweetDeck that searched for any Tweets with the word “uncertainty” in them. I thought I might find some interesting links or discussions about uncertainty in our lives that I could use or retweet. And while I didn’t really find anything usable for Nautilus, I did find that I was totally mesmerized by that column. I checked it all the time. It was so incredibly different from my usual Twitter feed – full of people completely different from me who were worrying about relationships and death, God and their parents, taxes, bills, whether they were going to have to go to court again, whether they were pregnant and whether their boyfriends who got them pregnant still liked them.

In journalism we talk a lot about our “audience.” And for most of us, we have no clue who those people actually are. I picture some of my friends from high school – people who are curious and smart but skipped class when they could get away with it. Other journalists I know picture their uncle or their mom. But all these people leave us with the same problems: they’re people we know, they’re people more or less like us. This is a huge problem (I think) with science communication in general. We’re really good at talking to people like us, and we’re really bad at talking to anybody else. (I’ll have more thoughts on that point later, but for now I’ll leave it at that).

Since stumbling upon the uncertainty search in Twitter, I wondered what it would be like to apply it to science. So, here’s a little site. It shows you who you need to win over, and who is already on your side. (Yes, I know that not everyone in the world is on Twitter and that using this ignores large underrepresented portions of the population. We should talk to them too. It isn’t meant to be a cure, just a little window into a slightly different world than your own.)

Let me know what you think. Does this help? Are you learning anything? If so, share!

In case you missed the link up there, here it is again.