The art of storytelling is as old as stories themselves, but it’s often lost in science and engineering, and we need more in biotech.
The first time I walked into a meeting at the Pentagon with a brick in my hand, the entire room looked at me like I was crazy. I had also just run nearly a half a mile through the building to get to my meeting, and I was sweating and out of breath when I ran into the room. To make things worse, when I put the brick down on the table, it made a thud loud enough to be heard in the room next door.
But to my surprise, that thud was enough to change the minds of everyone in that meeting.
I had just started as the head of biotechnology at the Department of Defense, and it was my job to convince the DoD that biotech needed to be on everyone’s minds. But the problem was, no one really understood what biotech meant, or what it could do for them. It wasn’t until I figured out how to tell the story of how biotech was going to impact every aspect of the military that people started to pay attention.
I did that with a brick.
This brick wasn’t a standard brick. It was one manufactured by bioMASON, the company that makes biologically produced bricks.
I know what you’re thinking, and I know what pictures just ran through your mind. When you hear bio-brick, you’re probably thinking of something green and squishy, along the lines of a lime Jell-O shot, only without the fun part. Its ok, that’s what most people think when I say bio-brick. But like I said, it was that thud that made all the difference.
When I put a solid brick on the table, one that was as hard and rugged as any old brick, people suddenly realized that I wasn’t talking about a magic green goo. I was talking about no-shit bricks that we could build roads, buildings, and shelters with. Suddenly biotech wasn’t just for the scientist. It was the kind of thing that construction engineers, warfighters, and commanding officers could use to carry out their missions.
That’s when I learned the art of storytelling and realized the biotech industry needs a whole lot more of it.
We need to get out of our own heads
It’s easy for those of us steeped in our fields, day in and day out, to forget that the information we have in our heads is not common knowledge. In this case, DARPA was working with a number of companies to create growable materials, and the Air Force was interested in growing runways. The program was going really well, and people were starting to talk about how crazy it would be if we could grow runways anywhere we wanted to. But every time someone outside of the biotech field asked how it worked, they’d get drowned with technical details.
“The microorganisms secrete calcium carbonate that acts as an adhesive to join together sediment from the surrounding environment to create a solid surface with a California bearing ratio comparable to that of standard kiln-fired bricks but requiring less energy input.”
“In other words, the bacteria produce a seashell like material that glues together the rocks and sand from the local environment and those bricks are just as strong as the kind you’re already building with. Main difference though, is that you don’t have to use a kiln to fire these bricks, so it saves you a ton of energy in the construction process.
Vigorous head nods of agreement.
The art of storytelling is as important as the technology itself
Now the example above is really just losing the jargon and making the technology more accessible. The storytelling moves us from the what, to the why.
Simon Sinek is famous for his book, “Start with why,” because he put into terms the art of storytelling. You don’t get most people excited about an idea or a technology by talking about the “what.” You inspire them with the “why” behind every action and every decision.
Who cares if we’re building runways with bio-concrete, traditional concrete, or dirt? Well, when we want to be able to repair runways by spraying down a solution and letting the runway repair itself while people go about other jobs on a base, we start to see the promise. Growable runways are then no longer about bio-bricks, but about empowering people to get more done by not having to tend to concrete or asphalt as much.
The biotech industry needs to get better at story telling
Healthcare biotech has it easy. If you’re developing a new drug, the “why” is to save people’s lives. Very few people outside of the experts talk about the mechanism of action. But in the new biotech industry, the one being driven by synthetic biology and techniques like directed evolution, we’re talking about CRISPR, genetic engineering, high-throughput sequencing, blah blah blah. I know, each of those “blahs” are F@#KING awesome. So much cool stuff – to people who are experts in the field.
What we need to do is tell the “why” behind it all. Take anti-GMOs and anti-vaccine arguments. There is no foundation in the “what” behind the arguments, but the “why you should be scared” is told over and over again. We need to start telling stories that people connect with on an emotional level, rather than just intellectual.
So let’s talk more about building a whole new set of trades-focused careers by creating a booming biomanufacturing industry. Or maybe we can focus on reducing our carbon footprint by building cleaner processes for producing plastic-replacements. Maybe we’ll create a whole new market for staple crops, or we’ll figure out how to create entirely new materials with benefits we don’t even know yet.
Either way, we need to double down on storytelling and talk less about how much money one startup raises, or how we’re using biology at all. Biology is not the point – changing lives is the point. We just happen to be doing it with biology.