The storyteller isn’t just another old white guy

M. Sanjayan is the lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He also has a great knack as a storyteller. This is highly unusual.

Most scientists are not very good storytellers. They prefer careful, measured ways of providing information.

As a communicator, I have struggled with scientists who are uneasy about presenting their research in simplified terms. They don’t like losing precision, or they worry that the statements are too strong and too definite. Maybe they’d have more impact if they lightened up a bit.

Sanjayan understands the need to translate science and conservation into something that personally resonates with people, according to a profile in Outside by Abe Streep.

“For the longest time, the conservation movement has been about saving animals. And what you do when you go on television is convince people it’s about saving themselves,” he told Streep. He’s appeared on David Letterman and a show on Discovery. He’s a sought-after speaker and a science and environmental contributor to CBS News.

Streep paints Sanjayan as an engaging and persuasive storyteller. In his role creating partnerships for TNC to conserve land in Africa, he has also had plenty of experiences that lead to great stories.

Sanjayan does not fit the typical image of a conservationist. He is “a clear outlier: telegenic, occasionally brash, and not white.” He was born in Sri Lanka and spent most of his childhood in Sierra Leone. This greatly helps his work in Africa.

Sanjayan takes his role as TNC ambassador seriously, Streep said, studying the speeches of Tony Blair, Barack Obama and even Sarah Palin. (Whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit that she connects with people.)

At a speech in New York, Sanjayan spoke in front of 100 well-heeled potential TNC donors. For an hour he told stories about far-away places and worked to make people feel connected to the global ecosystem. He didn’t make any pleas for “support.” When he finished, the audience rose to applaud. As Streep said, “Everyone loves a good storyteller.”

An article in the Journal of Media and Communication Studies found that literary stories are an effective way to teach science. The researchers found that:

  • People retain narrative information longer than factual information.
  • Stories “transmit information in an accurate, memorable and enjoyable way.”

Gee, I didn’t need the scientists to tell me that. After all, everyone loves a good story.

Ed. note: In honor of my 10th anniversary in business, I am updating and reposting some of the posts from my (now-defunct) Sage Enviro blog to make it easier for people to find them.