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 In Data Journalism, Data Storytelling

“So what? Why does that matter?”

It’s probably the worst phrase a scientist or researcher can hear. You’ve laboured seemingly endlessly on your work, made what you feel is a significant discovery, and your results are met with disdain. Or worse still — disinterest. Your audience doesn’t see why what you’ve told them matters. I call this the “so what?” test. And it’s one of the biggest challenges in telling a compelling scientific data story.

If you’re presenting research to a group of peers, this may not be important to you. They’re already interested in what you have to say, simply because of who they are. But for scientists who need to share their scientific data story with a broad, general audience, the “so what?” test is one of the first you need to pass.

It can be challenging. But it’s essential to the success of your story.

What is the “So What?” Test?

Essentially, this test examines whether or not you can tell your reader why they should care about your scientific data story. Will they understand why it matters? Can they see how it makes a difference in their lives?

Why is that important?

Given that you, as a scientist, have likely devoted hours and weeks, months, or even years of your time to your work, the significance of your scientific data story is probably obvious to you. But that doesn’t mean it’s as clear to everyone else who could benefit from it.

Telling a compelling scientific data story is the best way to get your work recognized.

But as long as someone recognizes its importance, isn’t that enough?

It is and it isn’t. Consider this: the more people who understand and recognize the value of what you’ve done, the more people can benefit from your work. And who doesn’t want that? That said, it’s critical to understand that the reason your findings matter to your readers may be very different from the reason it matters to you. That’s ok. It doesn’t diminish the value of what you’ve accomplished.

Telling a Great Scientific Data Story

The Datassist team has done a lot of research on financial inclusion. We’ve conducted scientific studies to examine the effects of formal financial inclusion — having a bank account — on very poor women in parts of Africa.

The CARE Link Up program is connecting village savings groups with major banks.

The results showed a clear link between financial inclusion and empowerment. But how should we communicate that to policymakers?

“Formal financial inclusion is shown to increase women’s financial empowerment.”

“Providing poor women with bank accounts leads to less poverty.”

“Bank accounts for poor women create more jobs.”

All three statements are true. But how many pass the “so what?” test? Which statement best conveys to decisionmakers why providing women in poverty with bank accounts is in their best interests?

And let’s say that the policymakers in question value job creation for their constituents. While statements one and two sound like positive discoveries, they might not be compelling enough to make the powers that be take action. But demonstrating that offering financial inclusion to women in poverty will create jobs could do the trick. But doesn’t that diminish our work? Assuming that our goal was to empower those women by providing them with financial inclusion (it was), then our objective was reached.

The Story and the “So What?”

Let’s look at a few more examples of why telling a compelling scientific data story matters.

Astronomical Events

FiveThirtyEight recently ran a fascinating piece in their science section called Two Stars Slammed Into Each Other And Solved Half Of Astronomy’s Problems. What Comes Next?

For those in related scientific fields, the mere news of two neutron stars colliding was enough to get people excited. But what about the vast majority of the world who are not experts in astronomy (or physics or relativity)?

The article details a long list of discoveries facilitated by that single event, including, among other things:

  • The origins of gamma-ray bursts
  • How heavy metals like gold and platinum are forged
  • Measuring the acceleration of the universe’s expansion
  • Confirmation that gravitational waves move at the speed of light
  • The discovery of the kilonova

Cellular Discoveries

A recent article in the New York Times called Young Again: How One Cell Turns Back Time tells the scientific data story of a discovery a group of researchers made while studying the Caenorhabditis elegans worm. So what, right?

“Scientific research has found that worms called Caenorhabditis elegans do interesting things with their eggs. Right before an egg is fertilized, it is swept clean of deformed proteins in a dramatic burst of housecleaning.”

Again, for biologists, fascinating stuff. For you and me? Maybe not so much.

But to give this scientific data story broader appeal, the article focuses on what this discovery means to us as humans: the potential for new cellular therapies and anti-aging science. The general public worries a lot more about disease and getting old than they do about the reproductive intricacies of worms. Explaining how this research could address those issues makes people sit up and take notice.

Share Your Story

Crafting a compelling scientific data story isn’t about “dumbing down” or changing the results you’re trying to share. It’s really just about embracing a core tenet of storytelling: understanding your audience. When you develop a story that conveys the weight of your work in a way that has meaning to those listening, you stand a better chance of attracting the attention you want. Do you need help sharing research or analysis results in a way your audience will understand? Contact the team at Datassist today.


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