Like bees to blossoms, we cannot resist the lure of a good story. Many have researched this phenomenon; some assert that it can be traced back to our ancient past. In those early times before the written word, essential survival information was passed from one generation to the next in the form of stories. Storr (2019) highlights the formative influence of stories, arguing that they help children ‘to navigate their physical, spiritual and moral worlds’. How many of us absorbed the perils of not listening to mum after learning about Little Red Riding Hood’s PTSD-inducing experience?
A clear narrative
A desire to see a narrative also permeates many areas of academia. In their ‘Guidelines for the Assessment of the PhD in Psychology and Related Disciplines’, The British Psychological Society advises that, in a conventional thesis, the text should ‘tell a story’. Similarly, a pilot study for the Higher Education Funding Council on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) reported that ‘the highest scoring cases…were those that provided a coherent narrative’. (Their italics.) And a funding application from Advance HE asks for, among the final outputs, a compelling case study that ‘will have a clear narrative’.
Accounts with no narrative
Why this focus on story? Perhaps it’s easier to consider things from the opposite view: what happens when an account has absolutely no narrative thread? When I used to walk my eldest daughter to primary school, she went through a phase of describing to me – in painstaking detail – any dream from the previous night. That precious quarter of an hour, I’m ashamed to admit, became a minor nightmare for me. This had nothing to do how much I enjoyed spending time with my daughter: it was the recounting of those dreams. Alas! They never amounted to more than a long series of random sentences:
Amy and I were in the playground. And then a blue parrot flew over us that said, ‘Hello down there!’ And when I looked, Amy had gone. The sun was really hot and I looked in my bag for my sun hat and I found this little toy car which turned into a real car. And I got in it and drove over a bridge that crossed a river of custard. Then I saw a shop selling rabbits and Laura was inside buying one…
Although there is plenty of sensory-based description here, there is no clear beginning, middle or end.
The AAA approach
The effect of having information presented in this way is, at the risk of sounding harsh on my daughter, stultifying. Olson (2015) labels it as the ‘And, And, And’ (AAA) approach. In terms of describing a research project, it goes something like: ‘We did this. And then we did this. And this. And following that, we did this. After, we focused on this. And this.’ As a reader, can you now sympathise with me listening to the descriptions of those dreams? The trap of dumping a load of factual statements on your reader and then assuming they’ll pick out the salient message is an easy one to fall into. However, it’s easily avoided, too. This is where the magic of narrative comes in.
The promise of change
The first step in deploying narrative is knowing what the essence of a story is. Consider this observation from one of Britain’s finest-ever thriller writers: ‘ “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.’ (John le Carré.) Why is that second statement so much more compelling? Because, within it, is the tantalising promise of change. According to Storr, change is ‘the crack in the universe through which the future arrives’: all stories depend on it to work.
The ABT approach
To effectively tell your story, Olson advocates the ‘And, But, Therefore’ (ABT) approach. Most stories use this approach—at least those that follow a conventional narrative. Which film is this?
There’s an idyllic coastal resort and it’s really popular with holidaymakers. But a monstrous shark is eating swimmers and the mayor is in denial. Therefore, someone with a boat needs to go out and save the day.
In the ABT approach:
- A provides context—it sets your story in place and time.
- B is the contradiction: the problem / issue / conundrum.
- T is the consequence of successfully identifying B—it’s the change in behaviour / practice / attitude that will result in the problem being surmounted.
How can you apply it to your work? Through something like this:
The condition of X affects 1 in 6 children and, due to its cause being perceived as genetic, is generally studied by means of Y. But, while processing some family surveys of children with X, I noticed a high incidence of pollen allergies in their mothers. Therefore, I’m now using novel mucosal barrier devices to explore how possible environmental factors could be the underlying cause of X.
If you’re using the ABT approach to summarise any sort of proposal—for instance, in the project overview section of a funding application—you’ve armed yourself with a very effective piece of writing. Not only is it clear and concise, but it also has the forward momentum of all good stories. Of course, the degree of detail you choose to include can be tailored to the particular audience.
There’s only one element missing from an ABT statement, and that’s the closing scene where everything is neatly wrapped up. Of course, for a proposal, that section has yet to be written. But, with a well-crafted ABT statement, you will hopefully be in a position to write it one day.
 Dunbar R, Barrett L, Lycett J. (2002) Human Evolutionary Psychology. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
 Storr, W (2019) The Science of Storytelling (E-book) London: Harper Collins
 The British Psychological Society (2017), Appendix 2, Available at https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/guidelines-assessment-phd-psychology-and-related-disciplines Accessed 6 January 2022
 REF 2014 (2010) ‘Research Excellence Framework impact pilot exercise’, Available at https://www.ref.ac.uk/2014/pubs/refimpactpilotexercisefindingsoftheexpertpanels Accessed 6 January 2022
 Advance HE (2021) ‘Collaborative Development Fund’, Available at https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/membership-2021-22/member-benefits/collaborative-development-fund#Inclusive-Institutions Accessed 6 January 2022
 Olson, R. (2015) Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. Chicago: The Chicago University Press.
 Barber, M. (1977) ‘John le Carré: An Interrogation’. New York Times, 25 September. Available at https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/03/21/specials/lecarre-interrogation.html. Accessed 17 January 2022
 Storr, W (2019), op. cit.