The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Adam Ruben
Writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist
For over 20 years, Adam Ruben has performed at clubs, colleges, and private venues across North America and Europe, including at some of the best-known storytelling shows and comedy clubs. He currently teaches storytelling with Story District, teaches comedy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and is one of the Lead Producers for the DC and Baltimore chapters of Mortified. He writes the humor column “Experimental Error” in the otherwise respectable journal Science. Adam has been seen and heard on the Food Network’s Food Detectives, the Science Channel’s Head Rush, the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Kremlin, NPR’s All Things Considered and The Moth Radio Hour amongst many others. He recently hosted the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science and currently appears on the Science Channel’s What On Earth? and Ancient Unexplained Files. He is also a contributing writer for the PBS Kids cartoon series Elinor Wonders Why. Adam is the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (Random House, 2010), and Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball (Chicago Review Press, 2017).
What’s your favorite medium for storytelling?
I love storytelling in front of a live audience. It’s the most fun, it has the best energy, and you can get instant feedback as to whether something is working or not. There are all kinds of nuances that you just can’t convey as well outside the context of being there in front of people.
Storytelling is very different in writing versus on stage. When I first started out, I’d write stories out and then perform exactly what I’d written. But I realized maybe that approach works for some people but not me. By the time I’ve got a story where I want it to be for the stage, it’s about 95% set, with the other 5% flexible for improvisation; adapting to and responding to what’s happening in the moment. I’ve heard a lot of storytelling shows where someone will be telling a story that’s very clearly written out first and every now and then you’ll hear one of those clunky phrases that looks normal on the page, but no one ever says. Storytelling is the most real when it feels like you’re sitting around the lunch table with your friends telling them about the crazy thing that happened that morning. If there’s a phrase that sounds pre-written it takes everybody out of the moment. They realize you’re performing something rather than just talking to them.
Why is storytelling important in the scientific community?
I think it’s important to tell stories about science because scientists need to be humanized. If you want to see what people think about scientists, do a google search for the word ‘scientist’. You’ll see that the internet thinks we’re all elderly, insane, white male chemists. That’s the picture that keeps coming up. The lab coat, the white hair, the green bubbling beaker of something. And the problem with that stereotype is that a lot of people don’t get to compare that to a real scientist. You have so many kids who get to the end of high school having met lots of science teachers, but having never met a scientist. I was lucky. I grew up where being a scientist was a normal thing. I’m from Delaware, which is the land of DuPont. My mother worked for DuPont. She’s a scientist. Lots of my friends’ parents were scientists too. But there are plenty of people for whom a scientist is like a wizard. It’s some mythical creature. It’s not something you could consider to be a career option because it just doesn’t sound like a real thing. So the more scientists can do to convince people that we’re humans, the better.
On the other side of things, if you’re a scientist presenting at a scientific meeting and you want to hold people’s attention, what you’re doing is telling a story. I’ve sat through so many scientific talks that have lost me at slide one. No one else in the audience is admitting it, but it’s true. They lose you early because they’re just saying here’s my data and here’s some more data. In conclusion, that was data. It’s all accurate, but I didn’t need you there. You could have just sent me the paper to read. The best presentations are the ones where they say: OK this is the problem we were trying to solve. Here’s how we tried to attack it. First, here’s what happened. That was unexpected, so it made us ask this. That little minimal framework of a story is enough to make a scientific presentation that much more compelling because you can follow it like a human being.
It’s amazing the power stories have over us. Storytelling grabs our attention and we cannot wait to hear whatever comes next. That’s why an article about a scientific breakthrough doesn’t start with: Scientists may have a cure for cystic fibrosis. It starts with a story about one kid who has cystic fibrosis and what it’s like for her. When I taught science writing to students, this is what I would show them. A lot of the framing of science articles is human stories. Then we get into the science and then the last paragraph is: but for the girl this cure could not come too soon. We do this because it’s hard to convince people to sit down and read about science. Science is specific and science is boring. But if you show how it actually impacts someone, you start with a story that pulls you in. By the end of the second paragraph, you want to know what this cure for cystic fibrosis might be, because you’ve just met someone who needs it.
What came first for you, science or storytelling? How did you go down this career path?
It was always both science and story. In a PhD program, your tuition is paid so you can take other classes for fun. Of course no one was doing that. But I got special permission to go take a playwriting class. No one could understand why I wanted to do that, but it was great.
A year later they were looking for grad students to teach writing, and they specifically wanted someone in the sciences because they had a lot of science majors. The next thing I knew I was teaching my own writing course as a biology grad student. So I kind of kept both paths. In fact, during my last year, I was simultaneously a grad student in biology and an adjunct faculty member in English. I was always trying to keep both things going.
It’s amazing how many scientists actively resist the idea of storytelling, because they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously. That’s something that I’ve struggled against my whole career. I was doing my PhD program by day and by night I was doing as much as I could in terms of writing and comedy. I started going to these open mic nights in downtown Baltimore. When my advisor in grad school found out I was a comedian, he was angry. There was a campus newspaper article about the grad student who does comedy at night. He held it up and said “This is an embarrassment to the department.” When I asked why, he said, “because it shows your mind is not on science, it’s on stand-up comedy.” For a while I thought ‘boy I’m doing this wrong.’ It wasn’t until later when I had more confidence that I realized I wasn’t doing it wrong. I’m allowed to do what I want in my free time. Other grad students run marathons. One has two kids. Another is a DJ on weekends, or volunteers at an art museum. Are their outside activities unacceptable? No. There’s just something about comedy that seems like a threat to the other half of the brain. I ended up having to downplay it for fear of not being taken seriously.
How do you define a story?
A story is something that has a beginning, middle and end. That sounds basic, but I’ve heard plenty of stories that don’t have an end or a beginning. Beyond that, a story should have an arc. It should have something that someone wants and how they go about getting that thing. If it’s a scientist giving a presentation, the story is ‘We wanted to find out the answer to this question, and here’s how we did it.’ It helps shape your story if it’s about someone who wants something.
I host this show called Mortified where people come up on stage and read from their personal diaries. It’s not quite storytelling because it’s a performance where 90% of it is just reading what you wrote 20 years ago. But then the other 10% is framing. Often those stories are framed like this: Growing up I was a kid who just wanted X, here are the excerpts from my diary in which I tried to get that thing. Then there is an outro where now as an adult I’ve gotten this thing or I haven’t. Finding that outro is really fun. A lot of times people don’t realize how the diary they wrote when they were 13 can connect to their life now.
I produced this piece with this guy who was showing comics he drew of his teachers in middle school. I asked him, how does this relate to your life now? And he said ‘It doesn’t really.’ So we had to dig deeper. What were you like in middle school? Were you the kind of kid who got into trouble in class? “Oh yeah,” he said. “The teachers hated me.” Well, does that have any relationship to your life now? Turns out he’s a middle school teacher. There’s your story ending right there. Another performer wanted to read these bad poems he used to write to impress girls. Now he’s married to a professor of poetry. There was a woman who read these diary entries about trying to get a particular boy to like her. As an adult he officiated her wedding to someone else. So there’s always these nice little twists that can provide framing and structure to turn these into a real story. What does someone want? How are they going to get it? Did they get it? That’s the basic structure of a story.
When you’re creating a story, how much do you think about your audience, versus just making something for yourself?
One problem with telling the story that’s in your heart – especially if it’s your first time telling a story on stage – is that it often just becomes The Story of Me. It’s a problem because it’s too nonspecific. People panic and think they’ve got to get every aspect of themselves into a story. So then it goes something like this: I come from a background of X, Y, Z. Here’s where my grandparents grew up, and what I was like as a child. It just becomes their whole life story. If you ask them if they can sum that story up in one sentence, they can’t.
I often tell my students you should tell every story as though it’s not the only story you’ll ever tell on stage. Tell every story as though you’ve got 30 different stories to tell and this is just one of them. If you imagine you’ve got 30 stories, then the story you’re telling can really just be the story of one very specific thing. I’ve got a story I tell on stage about an argument at a Toyota repair place. If someone hears that story, they don’t know who I am or my background or that I’m a scientist. But they don’t need to. It doesn’t need to be the story of me, it can stand on its own. Then I can get into other aspects of my life in other stories.
What’s your favorite narrative device?
I like to use the framing of a background anecdote to start a story. I have a story about playing Scrabble competitively. It’s about going to a competition and really taking advantage of my opponent who turns out to be a young child. I realized that the story needed some example of why I was feeling inadequate going into this competition. I had this other little one and a half minute story about someone defeating me at Scrabble club using a word that just left me in the dust. So my story now starts with that as just an example of how outclassed I felt going to Scrabble tournaments. It’s all leading to me sitting across from this 11 year old at the tournament and thinking I will crush him and then playing a bunch of phony words that he didn’t call me out on. That framing with a background story can be a useful tool.
How do you make a story better?
I really like using a lot of distinct direct information in storytelling, because as an audience member I want to hear details. The stories that I remember the best are the ones that have the most interesting details. If you tell a story about card counting in Vegas, I don’t just want to hear that you were card counting and you stopped doing it because someone came after you and you were scared. I want to hear the details. I want to hear how you card count. I want to know what that world is. A lot of storytelling is that I have specific knowledge from doing something a lot, and you, as the audience member, have not done that same thing. So you really want to hear this one thing that I know a lot about. That’s what stories are. Someone spent a year living as a war correspondent in Syria, and now they’re going to give you the most interesting 200 pages worth of that.
There’s this guy I used to see at open mic nights. He was a comedian who was also a mechanic. His comedy wasn’t very funny, no one was really paying attention. But then he would say, “How many of you’ve ever been pissed off at your mechanic?” People say, yeah, I guess so. Then he said, “Well, guess what? I’m a mechanic and there’s some things that you guys do that pisses us off.” Suddenly everyone’s listening because we want to hear that specialized knowledge he has. What are the things that regular people do that pisses off mechanics? That’s what’s compelling to people – to hear what do you as a storyteller know in-depth that you’re going to give me the most interesting few minutes about?
You can do that a few different ways.
You can beef up a story and raise the stakes by showing why the story is important. I’ve got a story I tell about the time an old German doctor yelled at me at a science conference. The story isn’t just this guy yelled at me once and I felt bad. I’ve got to put it into context. Why did it feel so bad? Why, of all the stories in my life, am I thinking about this one where a guy yelled at me once? Well, because I felt inadequate being at that conference anyway. Why did I feel inadequate? Because I was the youngest scientist there and they asked me to run the projector.I was being treated as the projector boy and not as a colleague.It had me questioning my whole career. So, when this doctor chastised me in front of hundreds of people for not running the projector well, it felt extra bad. Now I’m not only projector boy, I’m bad projector boy. The more you do that, the more you can beef up the stakes in the situation. It’s all about giving enough context.
Another way I use detail, is I have a few stories that rely on extra rapid fire information. It’s deliberately too much information, but to illustrate a point. I have a story about a Rube Goldberg machine I built in 9th grade. When putting the story together, I was trying to figure out: do I just call it the machine or do I actually tell what happened in the machine? The final version of the story has this sort of rapid fire 30-45 second section, where I’m saying: I dropped the marble and the marble lands in a cup, and the cup pulls out a stick , which is underneath a bunch of rocks, and the rocks hit a lever, which lights a candle, which cuts through a string. That rapid fire energy shows how I felt about the device. I felt so frenetic and obsessive about it, which is sort of the point of that story.