Can storytelling help scientists convey even complex and contentious topics like marine spatial planning?
In my experience, storytelling not only helps, it is essential if we want broader audiences to understand and support our work. Revealing something personal about why we do what we do can connect audiences with our messages and disarm adversaries.
Consider the field of marine spatial planning. Here, disconnects between scientists and audiences can be glaring.
I usually describe marine spatial planning to be like city planning; it is a participatory process where current and future ocean uses are considered across a seascape and space is allocated so that multiple objectives can be balanced and the ocean can achieve its highest and best uses.
Yet in practice, marine spatial planning is a field wrought with opposing stances and cluttered with personal agendas.
It’s also a field that while in theory is about conflict resolution, in practice often generates contentious debate and vitriolic disputes. It’s even been branded “irrational zoning” by one federal Congress member. This does not bode well for marine spatial planning, where we need the public’s support for our work to matter.
Last spring The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team began investigating the use of digital storytelling to help build understanding for the need and purpose of marine spatial planning.
We held a 3-day workshop facilitated by the Center for Digital Storytelling to train ten scientists in the art of digital storytelling.
The aim of this pilot workshop was actually primarily to see if scientists could access their artistic sides and engage in the act of storytelling to better communicate the complexities and importance of our work; to help demystify the black box of marine spatial planning.
Digital storytelling relies on a very different sort of creative process than our work typically requires. For some, this process can fall far outside of usual comfort zones.
My Digital Storytelling Journey
The digital storytelling workshop began with a “story circle.” Participants sat around a large conference table and shared with peers our story ideas.
The energy in the room was a mix of skepticism, excitement, and curiosity. Some participants shared pithy vignettes about their work that had the room in stitches.
But, while some people seemed to excel at capturing and conveying compelling moments and personal victories, during the story circle I struggled.
In the story circle I felt only able to verbalize scattered visions and disconnected ideas. Some people came prepared with twelve written pages, which compounded my frustration with being wholly unable to spit out the interconnected images that I could so clearly see in my mind’s eye.
Regardless of where we were at with our stories, at the conclusion of the story circle we all had to hone our message to 300 words or less, which is about what can fit into a 3-minute video (but felt like the size of a thimble).
After arriving to the workshop exhilarated by the prospect of trying something new and totally different, at the conclusion of the story circle and day 1 I felt deflated. It seemed like I was impossibly far away from discovering a story that felt worth telling.
I discovered my story over dessert that night.
Part of my struggle in finding a story was that marine spatial planning is so wide-ranging. There are so many meaningful aspects to it.
Finding the one perfect moment from my personal experience that could encapsulate the power of a well-planned process didn’t make sense to me.
Over dinner I scanned my memories of the planning processes that I have been a part of. One striking vision kept coming back to me.
It was this time I was walking through a market in St Kitts and came across this magnificent mahi-mahi fish that had just been brought in off a boat. In the throes of death the mahi-mahi cycles through the most stunning colors.
It’s captivating, mesmerizing, and a bit sad. But as I watched the mahi-mahi, as the life slowly drained from its body, I noticed the excitement of the fishers that had just pulled it in.
Then I saw the women that were gathering and already bidding on what parts they wanted. Waiting for their mothers to finish shopping at the market, children were running around on the beach playing with the waves as they lapped up onto shore.
As I watched the full picture of this moment, as the mahi-mahi gulped its last breaths, I realized that the story was so much more broad. And, that the story was actually very beautiful; men proud of their daily catch, women competing for the best piece of fish to feed their families, children at play with the ocean.
This was the story that I wanted to convey. Multi-objective marine planning means balancing the needs of a community across a seascape to that the communities that depend on the ocean can survive.
At the heart of every use map are moments like the one I experienced first-hand in the market place. Use maps (i.e. maps of human uses) capture a snapshot of the lives that lie behind those uses. If you take time to read a map closely you can better understand the deep, interconnected relationships that make up a community.
Maps that are part of a marine planning process show where a community has come from, where they are today, and can capture the aspirations of where communities desire to be in the future.
Marine spatial planning allows dreams and aspirations to be captured and can give communities hope that their visions of the future might be realized.
The digital story that I created at the workshop captures a very personal moment in my work. It is the story that leads this blog.
My hope in sharing it is that people will not only look at maps in a new way but that marine spatial planning sceptics might better understand at least a part of the planning process and therefore be more open to continuing the conversation.
You can also view additional stories created from the workshop on YouTube. I’d be interested to hear what you think of digital storytelling as a science communications tool, and as a way to convey complex and even contentious ideas to diverse audiences.