April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Sofia Hurst
11th March 2022

Dear reader, I’d like you to think carefully about the people who surround you in life – your friends, your family, your colleagues, your teachers – and think about how many of those people have brown eyes.

Brown eyes are fairly common in England. I’m sure various people’s faces popped into your mind as I asked you to imagine. In fact, 22% of the population have brown eyes. Incidentally, that is the same percentage of the population that has a disability.

This article is not about disability, nor our way of understanding it, but rather I want to talk to you about scale. I could have simply told you that there are 14.1 million people living with a disability in England. But does 14 million actually mean anything to you aside from ‘a fairly large number’? Probably not. 

It doesn’t then follow why people often default to the numbers in an effort to impress scale upon their audience. Our obsession with scale, the reason we believe it is so effective in communicating things, comes from our very utilitarian business environment. To sell anything, we must prove that the numbers add up and that our offer really is that much more impactful. But that is not the best way to communicate to the public, because quite simply, numbers are not easily processed. Who can really grasp the difference between, say, 12 million and 14? 

What people do take in, though, are the smaller, more personal stories. We are remarkably good at extrapolating from the singular story outwards, even as we acknowledge there are many unknowns. So, asking you, reader, to couch your understanding of the prevalence of disability by first linking it to brown eyes of people you know meant that you could connect with it in a way that the number 14.1 million would have failed. 

We also extrapolate from one person’s story. Tom Tapper, CEO of the creative agency Nice and Serious, captivated me in a recent talk about their work with different clients. In one case, working with the Rainforest Alliance, they moved away from generic messages of sustainability and made their campaign more personal. In other words, they told a singular story rather than try to convey everything the Rainforest Alliance do. 

They told the story of Adrian, a cocoa farmer in Côte D’Ivoire: a man who loves his life, his community, who enjoys football and is good with children. It is one example, one detail, of how the Rainforest Alliance is making a difference at the smallest scale. 

Rainforest Alliance: The Man Behind Your Chocolate from Nice and Serious

And yet, it is probably the most powerful campaign I’ve seen from them. We connect viscerally to tangible, physical people and their stories, and we can build from that in our own minds. I do not watch this two-minute campaign video and believe that by buying Rainforest Alliance cocoa I am only helping Adrian; I know that there are many others just like him and I’d like there to be more!

The same goes for any science and tech communications. These are generally areas that are heavy on research and numbers, and so particularly difficult to communicate.  However, power can still be found in those details.

David Attenborough documentaries do this beautifully. Even though there may be stunning panoramic shots, Attenborough’s voice draws us down into the details of those landscapes. In the most recent of these, The Green Planet, time lapse cinematography made breakthroughs in being able to tell the stories of plants in the same detail as is done with animals. For example, in a landscape ravaged by flames, it is the fire flower that is the centre of the piece. Its seeds remain just under the surface of the ground for decades, until a forest fire sweeps through. Only then will it burst into life and bloom in the barren landscape.It is powerful. It tells us more than just the story of the flower. It tells us about South African fires, it tells us about the regenerative times of the plants, and about the cycles inherent in nature – but it does so through the details of one flower.

Screenshot from The Green Planet (BBC)

What is beautiful about the way these nature documentaries are structured is the unapologetic way in which they focus on the details to tell the wider story, be it of a particular ecosystem or the globe. By telling lots of individual, detail-rich stories, it creates a patchwork quilt of tales we put together to better understand the whole. 

So where 14.1 million might mean nothing, brown-eyed friends do.

Sofia Hurst is a news editor and contributing writer for I, Science. She is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. At undergraduate, Sofia read physics and philosophy at Durham University, and since then has worked in the EV and technology industry. She is passionate about creating kinder connections between science and technology and humans, and continues to explore this both within and outside the course.