What’s the story? Creative ways to communicate your research

Early in your academic research, you should ask how you can creatively communicate it to a wide audience. The results may surprise you, says Steven Beschloss

Steven Beschloss's avatar
18 Aug 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Image of the red curtains opening at the start of a theatre performance

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Arizona State University

You may also like

You’re a content producer now, part one: how to write articles for a mainstream audience
3 minute read
magazines, tablet and reading glasses

When researchers launch a new project, it’s understandable that minds are firmly focused on a familiar chain of events – do the experiment or fieldwork, collect the data, draw conclusions, write the paper and get it peer-reviewed and published. While these are tried-and-true approaches that lead to academic success, the potential impact of research findings is minimised because no one has considered how the work could be developed and shared more creatively or via alternative channels. Too often, academics envision this final step as simply “translating” their work for a wider public, as if nothing more is required for effective communication.

The failure to consider possible storytelling approaches from the beginning – or at least at an early stage of the research – is a missed opportunity. What if your research were not merely “released” but inspired a series of essays, a book, a theatrical production, an animated series, a television documentary or even a feature film?

Yes, you might not know what’s possible until you’re far enough into the research to recognise its potential but considering this rich variety of options at an early stage can positively influence the questions you ask and the outcomes you achieve. Rather than viewing storytelling approaches as a distraction from your intended purpose, imagine how they might lead to your work touching and influencing a much wider public.

Several years ago, in partnership with Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, I developed a research project that identified and documented the experiences of survivors of extreme weather events – everything from hurricanes and floods to drought, wildfires and tornadoes. The plan was to gather insights from people on five continents and learn not only how they survived the event itself, but how the experience affected the way they live now and think about the future.

Working with a team of researchers and writers, our multifaceted goal was to increase empathy, know more about this climate-induced reality as a global phenomenon and better understand what people from diverse cultures may have in common when faced with these life-altering experiences. Voices from the Future was the resulting work, featuring nearly three dozen stories and people.

From an early stage of the research, when we were identifying extreme weather events and possible survivors, I reached out to a theatre director interested in developing performances based on social and community-based issues. I thought the collection of stories could form the basis of some kind of theatrical piece. Our early discussions led to our co-teaching a multidisciplinary humanities lab at ASU, Shaping Climate Narratives, with a class ranging from first-year engineering students to graduate students plotting careers in the theatre. The Voices stories became real-life material for the class to study, debate and ultimately devise a 35-minute production that has been performed digitally by six professional actors and screened at several climate-change-related events. We are preparing a television production of a staged live performance for a national audience.

This is happening because I asked questions at a very early stage of the research project:

  • Will this research only lead to a report that can be summarised for a general audience?
  • What might be the significance of this research and potential importance for the larger society?
  • What audiences beyond academia would I like to reach?
  • What other potential storytelling modes can I imagine?
  • Who could join my research team to help envision what’s possible?
  • Will this effort make the work better or distract from the core intention?
  • Are there other schools at my college or university or outside partners who could get involved and help realise the vision?

In my case, beyond the class and potential performance script, I pursued a media partner while we were still in the early planning stage. While the magazine editors could not know definitively whether our resulting work would suit their pages, they were more invested in making it happen once I had material to share because they were engaged at that early conceptual stage. As it turned out, The New Republic published a nine-story package over several weeks, including my introduction to the series entitled “Lessons from the frontlines of global warming”.

This mindset of asking what more we can do in addition to producing academic research or teaching a course has influenced a subsequent co-taught graduate course on climate crisis and the state of the planet. Students study various approaches to writing change-related narratives, write their own, then read a series of essays nominated by professional writers and environmental experts. The result is the first biennial Climate Narratives Prize.

Once again, this only happened because my talented teaching partner, an English professor, and I asked ourselves: what more can we do that can take our core material and positively influence a larger public? Even if you don’t have a confident answer to this question early on, it just might improve the resulting work and expand its eventual outcomes.

Steven Beschloss is a writer, editor, journalist and film-maker. He is director of the Narrative Storytelling Initiative and professor of practice with a joint appointment from the College of Global Futures, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site