Asked about my story crafting process, I pause for a long time and answer, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Everyone trades information in story form but I’m not especially well informed on the lore and practice. I don’t understand the mechanisms. I never examined them, I trained as a marine ecologist - terrified of public speaking in my early days. I was determined to be good at it as that’s where sharing research gets interesting.
Scientific writing is concise and precise. This makes for accurate but uninspiring communication. Conferences and public forums offered greater scope to inject more passion, to share my excitement about my research with others. I honed my speaking skills, gaining confidence to the point no-one could spot my hands shaking as I approached the lectern. While I taught myself to enjoy holding the attention of an audience, my wife introduced me to story-telling as an evening out, a weekend away. Taking me to events and demonstrating her considerable prowess at delving into the deep well of African American folk-lore, but I never joined the dots that story-telling was part of my skill set. To me it seemed something artists took on. And it was an artist who pointed out to me that my approach to communicating is deeply rooted in story-telling.
She pointed it out as I showed my children how cuttlefish move and hunt using a tide-washed cuttle bone and drawing in the sand. Seeing my skills through her eyes helped me find the path to my current employment, sharing science and marine ecology with schools and community groups, and left me open to invitations such as came my way from Jackie Kerrin.
I attended my first story-telling event in ten years as a performer and an audience member where previously I only had room in my head for the latter. I’m finding my feet, trying something new with each outing, parsing out what does and doesn’t work for me and enjoying myself immensely. I can’t articulate my process, yet. Usually I don’t like not understanding something but in this instance I’m a little apprehensive that if I do nail it down and map things out the result may be diminished. Where as a researcher and diver I’ve worked to formulae and processes, building on the meticulous work of my predecessors using finely tuned recipes for safety and success, story-telling feels raw and malleable, for now at least. I don’t understand it at a conscious level. I worry, a little, that if I ever comprehend it and map it with a formula I’ll sate the part of me that’s curious about mechanisms but disappoint the part of me that’s entertained and enthralled by stories.
One thing I’m certain about is that the people who love stories make taking risks easy. The warmth of the individual people and collective audiences I’ve met through my involvement in story-telling offer critique but never censure. Trying a new approach on material already well hashed out or taking an entirely new story to an event prompts eager anticipation where the equivalent moments in science and music spur apprehension. Perhaps I’ll understand, one day, but for now I don’t know what I’m doing, and for once that feels okay.
About the Storyteller: Matt McArthur is a science communicator/storyteller who likes messing about in boats and working underwater and researching marine systems with the smartest and most inspiring people anyone was ever lucky enough to work with and for. He is also a podcaster and a Moth champ, a lover of science fiction and ripping yarns about professional gamblers experiencing the edge of the physically possible. You can find out more about Matt here.