For the past five years, Springer Nature has been in partnership with The Story Collider, a storytelling organization that helps people of all walks of life — from scientists to doctors to patients to engineers to teachers to firefighters — tell their true, personal stories about science. In 2020, The Story Collider was forced to pivot from their live event model and in this guest blog, Erin Barker, Artistic Director for The Story Collider, shares more about their strategy and what they've learned.
Written by Erin Barker, Artistic Director, The Story Collider
When we canceled all of our in-person events for the year on March 13, we weren’t yet sure how to proceed. Our organization is focused around sharing true, personal stories about science at live events around the world; how would we continue to execute on our mission without live events?
So we started looking at several different online platforms, to see if it would be possible for us to reach our audience this way. We were skeptical that we would find a platform that would facilitate the same kind of intimacy and magic that is experienced at our in-person events.
However, after trialing a few different options, we decided to try Crowdcast, because we felt it had the right level of separation between performers and audience. The audience is never on camera or microphone, but they’re able to participate in the show in a few focused and specific ways: polls, the chat window, and the Q&A function. This was ideal for us — we wanted to create a fun, interactive show, but we also wanted to preserve the sanctity of the stage for our storytellers.
We’ve found that generally storytellers really enjoy this — they don’t have to worry about any interruptions or trolling or “Zoombombing,” but they can still see virtual applause in the chat and have interactions with our audience. Our audience seems to enjoy a break from being on camera while still being able to feel “present” at the event.
We also try to create this feeling of being a part of an audience with our show structure. During our shows, our hosts typically remain on screen for the duration. Crowdcast allows us to put each storyteller on the “big screen” while the hosts are in smaller screens in the corner. With this setup, our hosts can react to each story, with laughter, applause, gasps, and facial expressions that allow our storytellers to feel as though they have a real human audience — and also allow those watching at home to feel they are part of an audience. We’ve received very positive feedback on this approach from storytellers, who find this preferable to delivering stories or talks “into the void” at other online live events. Interestingly, we’ve also received very positive feedback on this from audience members responding to our post-show surveys. They crave the opportunity not just to watch a storytelling show, but to be a part of a storytelling audience and experience the communal response that a collective audience enjoys. One of the things we’re most proud of about our transition to online is that our average audience retention rate is above 90% — almost all attendees stay for the entire duration.
We’ve also found that, in many cases, we’re able to facilitate the same kind of vulnerability and pin-drop silence, as well as the same type of rolling laughter and hilarity, that make our in-person shows so special. In our recent show in partnership with Springer Nature, we saw this particularly with our final story, from Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management & Education at the University of Edinburgh.
Still, as the pandemic continues, Zoom fatigue has impacted online audiences across the board, and it has become harder to capture that attention than it was back in March and April, when this medium was still new. However, despite this inevitable challenge, we’re excited that we now have the opportunity to welcome audience members, storytellers, and workshop participants from all across the globe to our events. Storytellers we’ve long wanted to host but couldn’t because they were located in remote places can now share their stories with us. Audience members who have never been in the right place at the right time to attend one of our shows can now do so easily.
Researchers interested in sharing their stories can pitch their stories on our website, or they can attend our monthly online story slams, where they can put their names in the virtual hat for a chance to be invited on screen to share their stories in front of a supportive audience. For those who’d like to develop your science storytelling skills, Story Collider has also recently begun offering monthly online workshops that are open to the public. We at Story Collider believe that storytelling is a vital tool in the science communication toolbox. Research indicates that audiences respond much differently to narrative communication than argument-based forms of communication, because a story allows them to be transported into someone else’s experience. When we are transported into a story, we process information both less critically and more intensively. Our emotions begin to fluctuate with those of the main characters, leading us to identify with them. This can have a powerful impact on an audience. As social scientist Dr. Melanie Green’s work on transportation suggests, it can prompt them to seek out more information on the topic, revisit the story again and again, or share what they’ve learned with others.
Sharing stories about science can also have another, less obvious impact. Researcher Dr. Jeff Schinske conducted a study in which community college students taking an intro-level science course listened to several Story Collider stories over the course of a semester. At the end of the semester, he found that these students reported more of an interest in science; could see more of a place for themselves in science; and had a less stereotyped view of who could be a scientist. And, to top it all off, they also got a better grade in the class. To me, this illustrates the true power of stories — they have the ability to transform our perceptions not just of those around us, but also of ourselves and our own capabilities.
About Erin Barker
Erin is a writer and editor, and the first woman to win The Moth's GrandSLAM storytelling competition twice. She has appeared on PRX'sThe Moth Radio Hour, and one of her stories was included in The New York Times-bestselling book The Moth: 50 True Stories. Erin received her master of fine arts in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine in summer 2016. She’s proud to be a founding member of the Story Collider nonprofit organization (2012), along with original hosts Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht. She is @ErinHBarker and firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to her own stories now.