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We need more authentic storytelling in science

 

By Aine Gallagher

The day I attempted to give an inspirational team talk in Irish to a football team, was the most embarrassing day of my life. In Ireland, the Irish language is a minority language spoken by a small percentage of people. I have always loved but struggled to learn it and now, after an arduous 10-year journey, I speak it every day. Did I mention the word arduous?

Joining this Irish-speaking team was the best thing I ever did because it immersed me in the language. In the beginning, it was awful! I was the one who stood on the sideline, feeling out of place, trying to join in but not understanding what was happening, and also had absolutely no personality to back myself up. Then fast forward a couple of years, things slowly became easier and somehow I found myself as the captain of the team. I was still extremely insecure about my Irish, but nobody else had volunteered for the job. For some reason, I had agreed to do it.

So, it was half time of my first match as captain and we were losing, badly. I was really disappointed by our defending and so I repeated numerous times, “we have to focus on marking”, or in Irish, “bi ag marcail”. After a couple of minutes, my 14 teammates could no longer hold their giggles back and the dressing room erupted with laughter. I felt humiliated. I was trying my absolute best and everyone was laughing at me. On top of that, I didn’t even know why. Then someone pointed out that, what I was actually saying was “bi ag marcaoicht”. That doesn’t mean “mark your players”, it means “ride your players”. Which, if you didn’t know translates as “can everyone please fornicate with their players”.

But what does this story have to do with science? It highlights that communicating in a second language takes courage and resilience. Science communication and public engagement are in essence, the same as speaking a second language. It’s something we have to learn and by nature, it makes us feel embarrassed, we fear making mistakes and we often feel out of our comfort zones. It’s hard. The same as learning a language or being a human is hard.

Life presents us with challenges every day and I believe the best way to overcome them, is, to be honest about them. Personally, I am an outspoken feminist, yet when addressing a group, I value men’s opinions more than women’s. I hate this fact, I don’t consciously try to do it, but my internalised biases simply take over. For me, sharing anecdotes like this is the art of authentic storytelling. Another example is that I am a comedian with a specific focus on promoting the Irish language through humour. When I began, I tried to fit in with the fluent speakers, performing in front of fluent speaking crowds, and was often heckled to correct my grammar. When I stopped trying to pretend that I was an expert and admitted that my Irish was not perfect, that I made mistakes, and that I was insecure, that’s when people started listening to me. People related to what I was saying, it helped them to trust me and feel more secure about themselves.

Our research community is under a lot of pressure, especially in these times of polarised views and the dangers of fake news. The public expects scientists to be certain and have clear, objective facts. However, we know that science doesn’t quite work like that. It’s messy, there are so many confounding factors and considerations, nothing can ever be 100% certain. Then, add in the fact that most of us are just imposter adults who wish our parents would listen to us and understand what we do. These factors combined make the job of public engagement difficult.

Authentic storytelling is an extremely powerful tool that can set us free of our fears, allowing us to admit our human insecurities and share information that relates to the public. Like speaking a second language, communication and authenticity take practice. It takes courage to admit that you are a 33-year-old who avoids making phone calls. We need to develop the skills and build resilience. We will experience setbacks and we will find ourselves in situations where we’re giving accidental and inappropriate sexual health advice. However, it’s the same for all of us and the rewards are worth it. By learning to be more authentic when communicating with the public, we can share stories that incorporate our personalities, connect with people, help them to trust us, and ultimately transfer knowledge in a relatable, meaningful way.

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