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The Science of Story: Video for Professional Use in Science

Published February 14, 2017

Dave O'Brien

On Monday, February 13, Dave O'Brien, Associate Director of the Change Making Media Lab at California State University Long Beach, taught a class on creating compelling videos about research. The workshop focused on the elements of story that make a video engaging, regardless of what the video may be about.

Videos that use a story-based approach get people to take action more effectively than videos that use other approaches. Therefore, he suggested, when you create a video about your research, telling a story will make your video more compelling, engaging and accessible. What follows is a summary of the tips and information he shared in the workshop.

Story Structure

Stories have four basic elements: Character, objective, conflict and change. In other words, there is a main character who has an objective. In the pursuit of that objective, the character experiences conflict -- obstacles -- and, eventually changes in some way.


The character of a video is the person that you follow throughout the story. To make this character interesting, you need to understand:

  • What does the character want?
  • What is keeping the character from achieving his or her goal?
  • What change will viewers see by the end of the video?

If there is no change by the end of the video, there should at least by a hope for change.

For example, if you were creating a video about breast cancer research, your central character could be either the researcher or a patient with breast cancer. The goal could be finding a cure or better treatment for breast cancer. The conflict could be funding, technology or even results that are not promising. The change could be either the cure or treatment being developed or that a new perspective gives hope for the cure or better treatment being developed.

Tell a Story in Three Acts

Most videos that researchers create are short and often they are shared on social media. This means you've got 10 seconds to grab your audience's attention. Therefore, you need to create your hook in that short of time. This can be done, in part, by following the three-act structure of story:

  • Set up
  • Rising action
  • Pay off

Set Up

In the set up, you introduce the main character and the world in which this character lives. You also set up the conflict to help hook your audience. Basically, conflict is created by introducing the objective and the obstacles that are in the way of achieving that goal.

Rising Action

This is the bulk of your video. Your character is on the move toward his or her objective and is experiencing -- and overcoming -- obstacles along the way.

Pay Off

This closes the story and gives your audience some form of satisfaction. It is important that you show your resolution, not just tell about it. If the resolution has an element of surprise, this can be very effective. To create your conclusion, consider these questions:

  • Did your character accomplish what he or she set out to do?
  • If so, what does that mean?
  • If not, what hope does the audience have that he or she eventually will?

Know the Why

To create a compelling story, you need to understand why the objective is important. Why does the character want to achieve that goal? Starting from the how or the what of your story will, more than likely, create a boring and un-engaging story. A compelling why is what keeps your character moving forward in spite of obstacles. "Great art comes from a place of passion," said O'Brien, "not from a place of ideas." Keep this in mind and you can create compelling, engaging and entertaining videos about your research.