The Art of Storytelling with Journalists Neel Dhanesha and Tik Root

In this episode of Recharged with the State Impact Center, we speak with science and climate journalist Neel Dhanesha and Grist senior staff writer Tik Root about how storytelling shapes the way we learn. We take a look at how stories can be used to captivate an audience and convey a message, and we also discuss how storytelling can be used effectively in any field, including law.

Show Notes

  • Neel Dhanesha - Visit Neel Dhanesha’s website to learn more about his work

  • Tik Root - Visit Tik Root’s website to learn more about his work

  • Spark Bird - Learn more about the Spark Bird and how it helps fuel a passion for bird watching

  • Coastal Erosion in Louisiana - Read more on the coastal erosion issue in Louisiana that sparked Neel’s interest in Environmental Journalism

  • Citizen Science - Learn how everyday people can make an impact on climate research and other environmental issues

  • Held v. State of Montana - Read up on the youth led climate case and other similar actions being taken

  • Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) - Learn more about the climate investment the Biden administration made through the Inflation Reduction Act

  • Previous episodes of Recharged - Listen to past episodes of Recharged with the State Impact Center


Tiernaur Anderson: [00:00:00] My name is Tiernaur Anderson, and I’m the digital media manager at the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. You’re listening to Recharged with the State Impact Center, a podcast where we tackle the latest legal and policy debates. It’s about how to protect the planet and people’s health with a focus on the powers and duties of state AGs, combining research and expertise with a look at careers in this field, we’ll learn more about the role of states and protecting people and the role that you and I can play today.

I’m joined by science and climate journalist, Neel Dhanesha and staff writer at grist, Tik Root. We’re excited to have them here with us because in today’s episode, we’re going to discuss how storytelling shapes and influences the way we learn, and talk about the power of storytelling to captivate an audience and convey a message effectively.

It’s great to have you both on the show.

Tik Root: Great. Thanks for having me.

Neel Dhanesha: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Tiernaur Anderson: So, Neel, you spent most of your career covering science and climate change for places like Vox, Heatmap News, and Radiolab. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do?

Neel Dhanesha: Yeah. So, I’m a science and climate journalist, as you said, and I have mostly worked in text and audio. So, I guess you could say I’m a writer and podcast producer. And for the last few years, I’ve been especially focused on climate change and sort of covering the ways we live with and are adapting to the world changing around us.

Tiernaur Anderson: And Tik, you’ve written on many topics, including climate change, and your work has appeared in many publications, including Grist, where you are right now, but also Washington Post, National Geographic, the New York Times, and others.

Can you tell us more about what you do?

Tik Root: Yeah, I mean, I’m a climate journalist at the moment and, um, my current beat is decarbonization. So, you know, which is wide ranging when we’re talking about climate change, but I guess it’s the effort to get off carbon based fuels and fossil fuels and sort of what that effort is looking like.

Tiernaur Anderson: [00:02:00] Great, so one thing that we’ve been thinking about is the role that social media is playing in journalism and storytelling and just generally trying to tell a story and capture an audience. You know, social media has given us the ability to easily share information and stories with a broad, even global audience.

But it’s also increased the amount of information that we consume and as that daily intake goes up, it has become harder to capture an audience’s attention, especially if you’re conveying complex information. So, how do you tell a captivating story in this environment?

Tik Root: Yeah, well, I mean, I guess I’ll talk a bit more about just generally how I tell a captivating story.

Because I’m fairly allergic to social media and I’ve tried to wean myself off of it, um, at least to a degree. But, for me, a captivating story starts with characters and a narrative. So, it’s just like reading a good book, in my opinion. It’s sort of, who are the people behind the story you’re trying to tell?

How can you build a narrative with an arc, you know, a beginning, a middle, an end? How do you build the story? Basically, uh, a kid’s book out of your story. And I think those are the foundations of what I look for in a good captivating story. And then behind that is obviously the reporting and the topic and making sure that it’s.

You know, interesting and relevant to a wide enough audience and sort of. You know, what is someone supposed to take away from it?

Tiernaur Anderson: That’s a really insightful take on this question. Neel, how about you? What’s your approach to telling a captivating story?

Neel Dhanesha: Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, this is a problem that journalists and media organizations in general have been dealing with too.

Right? I think we see a lot about the sort of downfall of media lately, which is an interesting time to be a journalist. I think really what I try to focus on is. At the end of the day, what I learned when I was starting out as a journalist still remains true, which is you try to find people who can humanize stories and talk to them and get their experience of these really complex topics that tends to, you know, once you understand how really complex topics are being experienced by regular people on the ground, you find these details that make your story stand out.

[00:04:00] And so I think despite everything else that’s changing around us, what I really try to focus on is sort of trusting the idea that you find the right person to talk to. You make the stakes human and the story will come through and will effectively capture people’s attention.

Tiernaur Anderson: Are you familiar with this concept of a spark bird?

Neel Dhanesha: Yes. I used to work at Audubon Magazine and I’m very familiar.

Tiernaur Anderson: Yes. So, for listeners, a spark bird is what bird watchers call the first bird they saw that sparked their interest in birding. So, I’m wondering for both of you, was there a story or something else that was sort of your spark bird for environmental journalism?

Or, how did you get interested in this career? Neel, let’s start with you.

Neel Dhanesha: I think the story that really sparked this off for me was when I was a graduate student, I learned about coastal erosion in Louisiana, and I became really interested in, in just this topic, because. The more I talked to people, the more I realized it wasn’t just climate change making the waters rise and the coast was disappearing.

It was something entirely different, which was that there were these levees that we built on the Mississippi River, and they were starving the state of sediment. And there was just like this really complex story behind all of it, and I just became obsessed with this idea that We had sort of defined our relationship with this river and with nature and in an odd way.

And I think from then on, I became really interested in sort of climate stories generally. And it’s funny that you bring up birds because one of my first jobs in journalism, and especially as an environmental journalist, was at Audubon magazine, where I was writing about birds and I was talking about birds in the middle of the pandemic.

[00:06:00] And it had sort of, you know, I found myself in a place where I was experiencing really appreciating birds, both. Around me, but also for my job and through that became really interested in the ways that climate change environmental stories are intersected with these creatures. And so I wanted to explore our relationship with the natural world at large between those two, those two projects.

Tiernaur Anderson: So, Tik, what about you? What sparked your interest in this career field?

Tik Root: Yeah, I mean, I knew coming out of college that I wanted to be a journalist and I, you know, started my career in the Middle East doing reporting there based in Yemen for a while. But growing up in Vermont, environmental issues were always sort of a backdrop.

My stepmom’s a climate scientist. So climate and environment stuff was always on my radar. And it was always part of my journalistic repertoire, but it just slowly built and built into my journalistic repertoire. Something I’m focusing on pretty heavily right now.

Tiernaur Anderson: So earlier, you talked about thinking about stories the way you’d think about a kid’s book, and I love that example because it gets at this idea of simplicity.

So I wonder, how do you go about trying to convey a complex message in a more simple way without necessarily simplifying the issue?

Tik Root: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s about Finding an exemplar of that, right? So if someone is going through something, you have an issue, pollution or whatever it might be, can you find somebody that that’s affecting or somebody that is going through that and then just tell their story because it might be a complex issue around chemicals, et cetera. But if you can link it to a human story, I think it’s extraordinarily powerful. And I think like, how would your case look as a movie is another way to think about it.

Tiernaur Anderson: So Neel, going back to something you touched on earlier, climate really is an everything issue. There are so many angles to come at it from, but we often see it being discussed from the same handful of perspectives.

[00:08:00] So I know you recently worked on a story about climate change. How rock climbers unexpectedly began to play an important role in bat conservation, which is so cool and interesting. Can you tell us how you chose this sort of surprising angle?

Neel Dhanesha: Yeah, so I’m a climber myself, and I happen to be at this, at this climbing festival in West Virginia, and these climbing festivals tend to have these tents where climbing companies are there, you know, showing off their goods, but there was this one, there were these two people who were giving out these stickers that said climbers for bat conservation, and I was like, what is this?

Two scientists who are asking climbers when they’re out climbing to scan a QR code, if they ever saw a bat while they were out climbing, because it turns out that bats live in these cracks between rock faces, which we don’t actually know very much about. We know that bats live in caves, but these bats living in these, these cliffside cracks are kind of understudied.

And the only people who can really reach them are rock climbers. And I just became really fascinated in this intersection of essentially two of my interests. One is conservation and one is rock climbing and just the various ways that. People who might not think of themselves as citizen scientists or, or environmentalists in action can be with a simple action.

And I think I’ve been really interested in sort of the various ways that people can engage with climate research or climate change in a way that might help. And so this really still got stuck out to me as like a very simple, but helpful action. And that I just wanted to write about.

Tiernaur Anderson: Yeah, so in addition to journalism, how can storytelling be applied into other fields?

For example, state attorneys general are litigating cases in state and federal courts, many of which have to do with climate and environmental topics. So, can a lawyer incorporate storytelling into their work? And what about other advocates and decision makers?

Neel Dhanesha: [00:10:00] It’s so funny you ask that because I have always thought that other than journalists and, you know, writers, law is perhaps the most obvious place that storytelling happens.

You’re telling the story of your client at the end of the day and what happened to them. And I think a really good example of this is this case that happened in Montana recently, where a group of youth plaintiffs did sue the state of Montana over a potential constitutional violation. And the judge ruled in their favor and.

Part of what made the case so powerful was this testimony from these people. teenagers who talked about the way that the natural spaces around them were eroding. And it was, it was really powerful to hear these people go there and tell us about the snow disappearing and the woods changing that they had grown up in and they wanted their own children to grow up in.

So I think that’s a really good example of how storytelling can be crucial and really powerful in the legal profession. And I think the same can be said for anyone who is trying to show in court the importance of the human stakes of these cases. I think that finding people who can really demonstrate the changes around them will make a really good case, I think, as a journalist who believes very much in the power of storytelling.

Tiernaur Anderson: Now, this is outside the legal field or journalism, but just in general, if you had to pick one or two things to tell people who want to become better storytellers, what would you tell them?

Tik Root: I would say consuming good stories is really helpful. I think that writing wise, you know, reading, you know, The New Yorker is very good at it. There’s other magazines that are very good at this narrative work. There’s a lot of places to go read good narrative, but I also think watching the documentaries or good or good movies that have this, like I was a documentary producer for a while and I think it really helped me become a better writer because it helped me think in scenes and how, how this would look on screen.

[00:12:00] And so I think consuming good stories will help you think about that or thinking back to the best stories you’ve read along the way, whether it’s, you know, Snow White or Toms River. Like, what, what, what did you like about those and how can you emulate it?

Tiernaur Anderson: And Neel, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a better storyteller?

Neel Dhanesha: I think you just listen. I’ve kind of always thought that everyone at some level is a good storyteller. They know how to, everyone knows how to tell a story at some level. But I think the primary thing is that you have to decide that you want to listen to what other people have to say. And you ask questions that engage with what they’re telling you.

And the story will follow. I don’t think that it’s that much more complicated than that.

Tiernaur Anderson: I love this idea that we all can be storytellers because we all already know how to do it. And it goes back to what you were saying at the beginning about storytelling being something that goes way back.

It’s in our DNA, almost.

Neel Dhanesha: I would also say, I think that sometimes it’s easy to overthink storytelling. You can be like, Oh, I really had to get it right in this way. And I had to follow a kind of structure. And a thing that one of my editors would always tell me, especially when I was dealing with a really complicated story, she would just say, tell it to me, like you’re telling it to a friend at a bar.

And then write it down, you know, and then write down like what you told me, because when you’re telling a story to a friend at a bar, what you end up telling them is the most interesting stuff. You’re not telling them the details of, you know, how you got into your car and turned on your car or whatever.

You’re telling them how you were driving down the street and suddenly there was a truck on fire. That is the story you tell. Right? And so you end up just through this practice, figuring out what the interesting beats are. And honestly, just, I would say practice telling your friends stories. It’s kind of fun when your friends tell you stories anyway, but also it turns you into a person who can tell stories.

Tiernaur Anderson: [00:14:00] So, we hear a lot of stories that primarily focus on the problem at hand and while it is really important, it can get daunting at times and can sometimes be too overwhelming for readers to stay engaged on the issue. So, Tik, how do you try to balance focusing on solutions in what you’re writing versus Only writing about the problem.

Tik Root: Yeah. I mean, I think for a long time here, I’ve been an advocate of trying to find ways to talk about complex problems, not only through the problem itself, but ways in which people are going about fixing it. And I think that can be a really powerful way in, and I think it gets people excited and doesn’t turn them off.

And I think we’ve gotten some really good responses generally to articles that are solutions focused.

Tiernaur Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. And I think telling positive stories or stories about solutions is especially important because one of the reasons stories work is because when people hear them or read them, they can imagine themselves in the story.

So, if you’re telling stories about solutions, it’s allowing people to imagine that. They could be part of the solution as well. And I think that’s especially true when the solutions are on a smaller scale, like things people can do to make changes within their own lives.

Neel Dhanesha: A while ago, I wrote a story about insulation and how increasing the insulation in your home is a quiet climate solution and people really liked it because it was just the sort of thing that you hadn’t you don’t really think about very often, but can actually make a really big difference.

I talked to one expert for my story who basically worked on the installation in his home and getting better windows and stuff like that. Basically didn’t have to heat his home in the winter and he lives in Colorado. And so that’s kind of impressive, you know, and people were kind of amazed by that.

So I think that kind of, that kind of stuff is really exciting. There’s a balance to be hit. No solution is perfect, right? There’s opportunities and costs to each of these things. Insulation, for example, is expensive. It’s not accessible to someone who doesn’t necessarily have a bunch of [00:16:00] funds lying around to improve their home, or if they’re a renter, like I am, you can’t just change out your windows.

But there is, at some point or the other, a solution that everyone can buy into or can participate in one way or another. It can be as simple as composting that makes a difference. And I think that just sort of, again, just as we tie climate change to everything in terms of all these disasters, all these changes that are happening in the world, we can also tie these climate solutions to all kinds of aspects of life.

Yeah. And sort of show that it’s a thing we can all kind of do. There definitely needs to be large policy changes. And the Biden administration has made a lot of investments in climate change. Like the IRA is a big deal. But I think, overall, maybe we’ll become better stewards of the planet if we can realize we can make these little changes.

Tiernaur Anderson: I love that phrase that you used, quiet climate solution, because there are a lot of sweeping changes that are needed, but, you know, There also are a lot of small and approachable things that people can be doing that can still have a big impact, including telling and listening to stories. So, Neel and Tik, thank you both so much for joining us today.

We really enjoyed having you on the podcast, and we’re looking forward to following the important work that you’re doing.

Neel Dhanesha: Thanks so much for having me.

Tik Root: No, thanks so much. Look forward to following your guys’ work as well.

Jasmine Elbekraoui: Thank you for listening to today’s episode. Links to the materials discussed are available in the show notes for this episode. You can find it by searching Recharged. That’s R-E-C-H-A-R-G-E-D on our website at stateimpactcenter dot org. If you have any questions on today’s episode or previous ones, you can email us at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter and Instagram using the handle @StateImpactCenter.

Recharged with the State Impact Center was produced and edited by Jasmine Elbekraoui and Carlos Minaya.

Neel Dhanesha

Neel Dhanesha

Science and Climate Journalist

Neel Dhanesha is a writer and audio producer based in Brooklyn and a staff writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

Before Nieman, Neel was a founding staff writer at the climate journalism startup Heatmap. He also worked as a reporter at Vox, a fellow at Audubon magazine, and a temporary assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee’s journey to Guantanamo Bay. Neel has freelanced in both text and audio; among other things, he was a producer on the podcast Firebug, which inspired an upcoming Apple TV+ show, and the ESPN 30 for 30 series Heavy Medals.

Tik Root

Tik Root

Senior Staff Writer, Grist

Tik Root joined Grist as a senior staff writer on the decarbonization beat, covering everything from electric vehicles to clean energy to climate policy.

Before Grist, Tik began his career in Yemen, and has since reported from nearly a dozen countries. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the BBC, among other outlets.

Tiernaur Anderson

Tiernaur Anderson

Digital Media Manager

Tiernaur Anderson is is a climate communications professional with an interest in making climate action more accessible for people at all levels of awareness and engagement. At the Center, she produces the biweekly newsletter, manages the Center’s AG Actions database and other online tools, and designs Center reports and web resources.

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