Palm Springs only: an interview with Brian Andreas

Brian Andreas gave a Palm Springs-only talk about how scientists and technologists can use the power of storytelling to build public support for their projects. He outlined the three most important characteristics of a good story. Here, we asked him what he would say if given a few extra minutes on stage:

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Brian Andreas: I’d start with the first three rules: treat me like a friend, show me some pictures, help me see the patterns. I’d do that. But then I’d add the fourth and fifth and sixth ones.

The fourth one is something that C.S. Lewis said: “Use the ideas of adults and the words of children.” And partly what that means is that in order to tell what you know to a child, you have to know it cold. You can’t fake us out. Because so often people who can explain don’t really know what they’re talking about. The more you know your stuff, the easier it should be to bring it to a child’s level. Also, the sneaky thing about that is, when you’re speaking to a child, you literally are speaking to the child self of your audience. Now, oftentimes, from a science and technology standpoint, you don’t want to do that because you want to prove how smart you are and how clear your data is so it’s reproduceable. But you forget that first you have to connect again. It goes back to “treat me like a friend.” But if you’re talking to a child, you’re going, “This is the wonder of science and here’s why I’m so fascinated by it.”

Fifth, sixth and seventh are all related. The one that comes to mind is that people get stuck with “beginning, middle and end.” And they go, “Oh, a story has to have a beginning, middle and end.” Yeah, it does, but a beginning, middle and end is as simple as, “One day there was a problem. And then suddenly this next thing happened, and you couldn’t believe it. And then it spun wildly out of control. And then it all worked out.” That’s a beginning, middle and end. And so that’s what I would go with as my next points.

OK, one more? This is if you get totally stuck talking about science or technology. There really is only one story that you need to tell as a scientist or a technologist. It’s Prometheus stealing fire. That’s it. That’s what we do as scientists or technologists. We steal fire from the gods and we bring it to humanity, which is why we get our livers torn out. If you tell a good story, it’ll save your liver. Basically, always come back to that. “I, or my team, is bringing fire back from the gods for all of us.” You can’t lose with that story.

Photo: TED / Michael Brands