9 Strategies For Using Science To Tell Stories - Craft Your Content

9 Strategies For Using Science To Tell Stories

The day I went from having to follow strict briefs to being able to choose what I wrote about was a watershed moment for me. It was a new, open-ended project in the beauty sector, with a broad, vague content strategy and the brand’s objectives to guide me. Other than that, I had free rein.

I charged full-steam ahead, firing off blog posts, product descriptions, email content. Naively, I just assumed the ideas would keep flowing. But very soon, the well had run dry. 

That’s when I decided to turn to science for guidance. But not for the data—for the story. This simple shift of perspective almost instantly raised my game as a writer. When I decided to pick apart just why it worked so well, I found it came down to nine core strategies.

At the time, I had already been incorporating science into the content I was writing for clients in the beauty sector—a statistic here, a study there—to back up whatever hair or skincare point I was making. This time, though, I wanted to put the science at the center.

But did it make sense to go this level of geek in the most aesthetic of fields? I had my doubts.

The modern world paints stark lines between the arts and sciences, which haven’t always existed, as the physicist CP Snow pointed out way back in 1959. Today, we still struggle to see science beyond numbers, hard facts, and figures. But that focus on the quantitative aspect means it’s all too easy to forget the qualitative; the details and the stories those details tessellate into. And yet, there are many ways science can make your writing come alive.

The most obvious is in idea generation. When you consider the supersonic rate at which new research is released and compare it with even the most prolific writing rate, you quickly realize one thing: you will never run out of ideas. What better place to find topics to write about than straight at the source of these potentially world-changing discoveries? 

Moreover, knowing what we know about storytelling—how deeply it is embedded in our psyche, how our brains use stories to encode information—what would happen if we delved into these discoveries and found ways to share them with our audience as stories?

That is exactly what I did, and if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, needing some fresh inspiration, the following strategies might work for you too.

Cast a Wide Net

You don’t need to find a scientific study that ties directly into what you’re writing about or what you study.

The science story you draw on to create your content doesn’t have to be directly related to your field. I’ve written stories scooped from medical case reports on topics like hair oiling that have an obvious connection to beauty. But I’ve also taken research from biotech journals about beetles, with no immediate relation to the beauty topic I’m writing about. The secret is finding the thread that links those two disparate concepts together. 

After all, bugs and beauty might not be the most obvious of links, but there are ideas that cross easily from beetles in the Namib desert to a woman with dry, curly hair an ocean away. 

Here’s an example: Every morning, the desert beetle is up before dawn and uses a special, water-loving material to catch the mist that will keep them hydrated for the rest of the day. To hold onto those precious droplets under the hot desert sun, the beetle also has clever water-repellent features that keep the arid air from snatching that hydration away. 

As soon as I read the report on the beetles, I knew that the idea of “water capture” would resonate with readers dealing with dry hair and looking for the perfect morning routine that would keep their strands hydrated for the rest of the day. I had found the thread.

Know Your Audience

I’m mentioning this second, but the audience always comes first. What matters to them? What drives them? What do they come to you for? Those are the elements you need to consider when you pluck ideas from a research article to get your story.

With my beetle story, I was writing for an audience interested in haircare. But the articles I read on these creatures and their amazing “water capture” abilities were geared mostly at material scientists interested in engineering designs inspired by nature. I knew my audience of beauty lovers were not looking for the “best bionic blueprints” for condensers, so I pulled out the element that mattered most to them: moisture.

Start With Case Reports

using science to write
Start small, or you might get overwhelmed.

If jumping straight into a 12-page article from a specialist scientific journal seems overwhelming, start a little smaller with case reports. Case reports are short dispatches which are already in story form. The narrative is easy to see, though it might be a little cluttered, with chunky sentences full of jargon-heavy industry wording. 

All you need to do is a light distilling of those details, removing any information that does not help illustrate the idea you are using the story to convey, and you have a starting point to write. Once you get accustomed to this method, you can move on to getting ideas from papers where the story is less obvious, where you need to piece it together for your audience by connecting causes and consequences.

You Don’t Have to Be the First to Tell the Story

When doubts like “hasn’t this story been told already?” or “but it’s already written in a review article!” started to creep into my head, I had to check myself: Very few people read scientific journal articles every day, even review articles. They most likely haven’t heard this story yet, and unless they are told by people who have, they won’t ever know. 

But what if you’ve seen the research you want to write about discussed outside of the journal? That doesn’t mean your own audience has seen it. And it definitely doesn’t mean they’ve come across it in a form that is suited to their interests and concerns, or, crucially, from your perspective and in your voice. Remember: No one has ever written from your lens before. 

It’s very likely, however, that the story you’ve pulled from that scientific journal is totally new to most of the people in your audience. Scientific databases are a treasure trove of information that isn’t just valuable to the expert target audiences they cater for. 

Despite this, many people see journals as intimidating or off-putting, so they rarely or never wander into them, missing out on a ton of useful info. While there are some major changes underway to make science publications more accessible to a wider audience, these types of texts still haven’t shaken their old reputation for being arcane and impenetrable, closed off to all but the small number of super experts in the author’s own field.

This is a fear I had to overcome myself: It took me a while to be able to step into areas of science I was unfamiliar with and glean stories for my readers without feeling like I was trespassing or an imposter.

Added to all this is the intense pace of discovery. There is so much knowledge being published every day that a lot of great research gets buried under the sheer weight of output. Sometimes amazing studies languish largely unseen for years when many of the people who could benefit from the findings don’t even know they exist. If you’re willing to wade in, you can find some overlooked gems that really connect with your readers.

Give the Facts a Beginning, a Middle, and an End

Readers of all kinds have one thing in common: we do best when there’s a discernible structure.

Most of the research I encountered on the Namib desert beetle was presented as a series of facts: The beetle lives here, it looks like this, it does this. A lot of the information was stuck inside tables and charts instead of written out in clear sentences. There was a story, but it didn’t have a story shape, that natural pattern that we all look for mentally. 

So I set about taking the big moments—the parts I knew my audience would find interesting—and assembling them into that familiar pattern.

To find the storyline, I started thinking in terms of time: what happens first, what happens next, what happens at the end? A clear narrative arc is essential to storifying the facts. Sketching those details into time creates that recognisable, relatable rhythm that your reader expects, and that pulls them in.

Don’t Underestimate Your Audience

I’ve worked with beauty brands in the past that were scared of putting anything that sounded too science-y into their content. They thought it would frighten away customers. As I had been one of their customers before I began working with them, I knew they were wrong. 

A lot of brands don’t realize that the modern beauty audience is way more informed, especially in the online space. Many beauty fans spend time perusing forums or having discussions on social media that delve far deeper into the science than a lot of brands account for. Even in an industry widely perceived as shallow, people are looking for more depth. The glib banalities that worked before won’t cut it anymore.

When the topic comes to haircare in particular, it is not rare for an avid forumite to be more knowledgeable about certain aspects of hair science than a traditionally-trained hairdresser. A significant number of new concepts are passing straight from research journals to social media to the consumer, long before they make it into the curricula of beauty schools. This phenomenon is not limited to beauty, either; it’s happening across several sectors.

So whether you’re writing about health and want to drop in details of the latest microbiome study, or you’re in the automotive sector and want to let your reader know how tribology affects their engine performance, go right ahead. Folks may not want to plow through a journal article themselves, but people like to know how things work. So it’s OK to drop in a scientific term here or there, define a new concept, show your reader a little bit of how the magic happens. 

A lot of these highly informed consumers are looking for that value-added information. They’re the ones who are often knowledge hubs in their own personal networks, micro-influencers on or offline, people who other people trust to be able to find the right information. If you are able to speak to them, your message will make it through to many more than you are able to reach directly. But if you talk down to them and skimp too much on the logic, you’ll lose them.

That said, don’t beat your readers in the head with the jargon. There’s no need to expound on everything you know about a topic in one article: One or two new concepts is usually enough. Never wander off too far from your main point. Always make sure what you’re taking your sweet time to explain is something actually relevant to your audience.

There will be other articles to express all the things you have to say, so save some of your ideas for future projects. A notebook is a very helpful way to remember your brainwaves so you can use them as a starting off point later on.

Don’t Lose Your Voice

successful writer mindset
Don’t let the technical get in the way of who you are and how you write.

When you’re working with very dense, authoritative texts, it’s easy to get a little intimidated and awestruck. We often think that if we stray too far from what the author is saying, in the way they’re saying it, we’ll get it all wrong. So we stay as near to the original as possible, just barely paraphrasing, instead of reimagining the story for your audience.

But it’s always important to step back a little bit from what you’ve read. Stay too close to the text, and you’ll forget that you’re actually answering a new question for a new set of readers. While you should make sure you understand a topic before you write about it, and keeping it accurate is a must, you don’t need to follow the same word sequence (unless it’s a fixed term) or use the same sentence structure that the research author used. 

One of the worst things you can do is copy the passive voice—still all too common in journal-land—to talk to your audience of ordinary people. Your people aren’t the same as the technical, specialist audience the journal author is writing for. So you don’t need to mimic their phrasing and get stuck in their style, mindlessly copying details that have no relevance to the people you’re talking to.

Instead, put things in your own words; make sure it sounds like you, and only pick the details you think will resonate with your audience.

Use Personification

Personification gets a lot of rolled eyes these days, whether it’s people complaining about smoothie labels that speak to you in the first person or reporters who talk about microbes as if they were miniature military strategists. But here’s the thing: We’re people. And people respond to other people. Just like we look for faces in everything, there’s a human tendency to personify in order to understand and to relate. 

Our ancestors saw spirits everywhere in the world around them, from living trees to inanimate rocks. And many modern neuroscientists are expanding their concept of consciousness to take in other species and even objects. It’s something deep and ancient embedded in us, part of our innate sense-making.

In my beetle story, I purposely used “she” instead of “it,” and I alluded to things people could relate to, like going out to work in the morning. It makes the story relatable, and if the story is relatable, the message is relatable, too.

Bring It Back Home

using science to write
Don’t lose track of the why!

As fascinating as the science is and as thrilling a yarn as you’ve managed to spin from it, you’re writing this story for a reason. You have to pull the reader back into the point you were trying to make. If you’re writing to teach, what’s the lesson? If you’re selling something, how does it relate to your offer? 

Draw that parallel for your reader as clearly as possible, tying your science story to your objective to make it tangible. The moral of the story is one of the most vital threads, and your story isn’t complete without it.

Science Is Your Friend

So there, in a nutshell, are your core strategies for using science to write better content: Cast a wide net and use scientific databases to seek out intriguing research—including some that might not be directly from your industry but offer rich metaphors that drive your point across. Know your audience and tailor any interesting science stories to them, not the other way around.

If you’re nervous about building a story from longer, more complex research articles, start with simpler, shorter case reports which will already be in story form. Don’t lose sleep over the possibility that someone may have written about the topic before you; your perspective and voice will add all the originality you need. Make sure your science story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Without these core elements, it will be harder for your reader to follow. 

Never underestimate your audience: While you should write in a clear, easy-to-understand style, there’s no need to dumb things down. At the same time, don’t just paraphrase the research: Your words still need to have some color and sound like they were written by you, for your people. Using personification is one of the easiest tools to instantly create that kind of resonance for your audience. 

Last but not least: Always tie your story together at the end by spelling out the main thing you want your reader to understand from your article and the next step they should take.

I should leave you with just one caveat: These strategies are not a guarantee that you’ll never have idea problems again. I still get them. These days, though, the nature of the beast has changed. I’ve gotten a little too good at finding journal articles that I think will be useful at some time in the future. The challenge now tends to be choosing which one to write about next. But I’ll take a little choice paralysis now and then over that blank screen panic any day.

About the Author Jea Morris

Jea is a writer and translator based in London.