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More storytelling lessons from "Cosmos"

This is an exciting week for anyone who was even remotely influenced by Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a thirteen-part TV series which first aired in 1980. This week began the much anticipated follow-up called "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" hosted by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Like many people, I'm a huge fan of both the late Carl Sagan and current science communicator extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm interested in Cosmos for the science and the awe of the universe that will unfold before us on screen. But for me — and I suspect for many of you as well — I'm interested too in the many lessons about presentation and storytelling that will be implicitly displayed over the next several weeks in the new Cosmos. But before touching on those points, the first question is really why does the original Cosmos endure to this very day? Why does a show about the universe produced in 1980 have such a strong pull on us today? It's not because of the compelling communication style of Carl Sagan alone, although that is a small part of it. Nor is it because Sagan gave us information that most of us never had. The reason Cosmos endures is because the presentation of the original Cosmos series made it clear why what we were seeing and hearing mattered. Even if it was not always explicitly stated, the message was clear: This is important. This is remarkable. And you are a part of it.

If you listen to the creators of Cosmos you will hear the words Story and Storytelling uttered frequently. "You realize that science is not just this subject from a textbook," Tyson said. "It's a human story. Discovery is human… It's a celebration of human curiosity and why that matters to who and what we are." Below are just a few lessons from Cosmos—the original and the new series—that we may be able to apply to our own presentations. There are many, many more than this, but here are just a few for now.

Make the tough choices about inclusion and exclusion
Whether you have 5-minutes, 18-minutes, or an all-day seminar in which to tell your story, it is never enough time to tell all that you know or to share everything in as much detail as possible. Time can be a real obstacle, but it's also a great enabler if you are willing and able to put in the time to think long and hard about what's the most important and what's less important for reaching your audience in a way that is honest, informative, and engaging. You can't include all that you know or all that there is to say. The secret is in knowing what to leave out. Cosmos is only thirteen-hours long so the creators had to be very focused about what to included and what to exclude. When cutting we must be careful, however, not to misrepresent or conceal or distort or embellish the data. This is not easy. Balance is key.

Make 'em care and tell them why it matters
As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this Bill Moyers interview, the original Cosmos was not just a documentary of the latest scientific findings concerning the universe. There was something more there. After all, Tyson reminds us, there have been many documentaries since the original Cosmos that did a good job of laying out the latest science, and yet they more or less fade from our memory. But Cosmos did not fade. Why? "It's not because it brought you the latest science—although it also did that," says Tyson. The impact of Cosmos endures to this day, says Tyson, "...because it displayed for you why science matters. Why science is an enterprise that should be cherished as an activity of the free human mind. Because it transforms who we are, how we live, and it gives us an understanding of our place in the universe."

It is hard to choose just one element that a successful story must have, but if I had to choose just one, I'd say it is this: Show clearly why your topic — or result, cause, mission, etc. — matters. What's the big picture and our place in that picture? Pixar's Andrew Stanton said something very similar when he identified the most important element of storytelling as "make me care." You must make the audience care. And you must let them know clearly why they should care.

Respect your audience
Two of the great crimes of science education, says Tyson, is (1) not knowing how to make it exciting, and (2) believing that you are making it exciting by "dumbing it down." The audience, says Tyson will know if you are dumbing it down. He says you must speak to the audience with respect and dignity and have appreciation for the audience's capacity to wonder and for their intelligence. Too much TV programming, for example, Tyson says goes down—way down—to the lowest common denominator. "What kind of vision statement is that for producers of media or even for a nation to create programming that does not treat people as intelligent beings?" The lesson for us? Know your audience as best you can and prepare with that audience in mind.

Make it visual
The new Cosmos is a "visual-effects extravaganza," says John Teti writing for "Cosmos doesn’t hesitate to indulge in eye candy. But the true feat here is how Cosmos’ imagery overcomes our puny ability to conceive huge spaces," says Teti. "Each line on the cosmic address follows clearly from the last, and the sequence’s methodical buildup lets viewers acquire a sliver of insight into our universe’s baffling bigness or, to put it another way, our pathetic smallness." However, "visual" does not mean only the use of graphics such as photography, video, animations, visualizations of data, and so on. Visual also means helping the audience to clearly "see" your ideas through your use of descriptive language, through the use of concrete examples, and by the power and simplicity of metaphor.

Present in the spirit of contribution—make an offering
Tyson says that Cosmos is not an attempt to beat people over the head with things they must understand to become science literate. Instead, he says, it is an offering. "I'm not saying learn this or else!" But rather, Tyson says, "it's like, here it is and here's why it matters....Here's why your life can be transformed just by having some understanding of this."

Spark their curiosity
Producer Ann Druyan says that the way science has been taught in schools is "horrendous," an approach which often results in our natural curiosity being "beat out of us." Therefore, says Druyan, "the way we are trying to tell these stories is an opening, an aperture to the excitement [of science]." Tyson goes on to add, "Cosmos will reignite the fires of curiosity that I know live within us all."  

Take them on a journey
"In the new Cosmos we are continuing this voyage. We are continuing this epic exploration of our place in the universe," says Tyson. There have been new discoveries obviously since the original Cosmos in 1980. For example, some thirty years ago we did not know—though people suspected—that there were other planets orbiting other stars. This discovery is not just new science, says Tyson. "It's new vistas of thought and imagination." Science can be told as an adventure as exciting and mysterious as anything any man has made up.

Trigger a question
Good storytelling causes the audience to ask questions as your narrative progresses. As the storyteller you can ask questions directly, but often a more interesting approach is to present the material in a way that triggers the audience to come up with the questions themselves. And yet we must not be afraid to leave some (many?) questions unanswered. When we think of a story we may think of clear conclusions and neat, clear endings, but reality can be quite a bit more complicated than that. There are an infinite amount of mysteries to ponder and puzzles to be solved. Many observations can not (yet) be explained, but that is OK. This is what keeps us going forward.

Touch them emotionally
"Science doesn't have to be the opposite of religion in terms of its emotional value," says producer Brannon Braga. "Science can move you like any other story. Science can be a visceral, emotional experience." In an interview with Skepticality, producer and writer Ann Druyan said "In order for it to qualify on our show it has to touch you. It still has to be rigorously good science—no cutting corners on that. But then, it also has to be that equal part skepticism and wonder both." In this interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "Tyson says, "what you remembered most about Cosmos is how it affected you not only intellectually, but emotionally."

Great interview with Bill Moyers and NDT.

"Whoever said you couldn’t communicate science by way of stories? Cosmos is an occasion to bring everything that I have, all of my capacity to communicate. We may go to the edge of the universe, but we’re going to land right on you: in your heart, in your soul, in your mind. My goal is to have people know that they are participants in this great unfolding cosmic story."  — Neil deGrasse Tyson (Wired)

• Seven things we learned from episode 1
Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson Unveils the Cosmos
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
• Cosmos Live Event video (great discussion)
• The Carnegie Mellon University website has a page entitled Telling Science Stories with documents and links to resources for helping people incorporate elements of storytelling into their science writings and presentations.



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