Michael Werner on Unraveling Nature’s Mysteries

Emily Hughes

At the heart of all successful storytelling is the element of mystery, said documentary filmmaker Michael Werner in an Oct. 4 lecture at Emerson College in Boston. In the same way mystery draws audiences to binge shows like “Stranger Things” and “House of the Dragon,” he said, this device can also be applied to science reporting.

“Some of the world’s greatest mysteries are in the mountains, in the oceans and in the skies,” Werner said. Science is just a way of unraveling the world’s mysteries.

Werner shared his strategies for compelling video storytelling with students and faculty in the first of three 2023 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lectures this fall. The AAAS Kavli lecture series continues with Maryn McKenna, a senior writer at Wired, speaking at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on Oct. 24, and Nicole Mortillaro of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation speaking on Nov. 14 at Toronto Metropolitan University in Canada.

Werner won AAAS Kavli awards in 2014 and 2021 for his video reporting on environmental topics, including predator/prey relationships in wolves and carbon storage in prairie grass species. Werner’s films have also earned him a national Emmy Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award for Documentary.

Werner stands at a podium in front of projector screen
Two-time AAAS Kavli winner Michael Werner speaks to Emerson College students and faculty

When an occurrence seems to defy explanation, Werner said, it raises a question. And that question can be used to draw audience interest. “Our brains crave closure,” said Werner. "Unanswered questions are like an itch needing to be scratched." When you answer one question, raising another creates a “series of hooks” that draw viewers along the narrative.

Particularly when reporting on science topics, Werner mentioned that it can be tempting to present science as a series of facts. But there are usually more engaging strategies, he said, telling students that “your brain responds differently to questions than to statements or a series of facts.”

This same technique can be used both in storytelling, as well as when pitching ideas. While it can be tempting to “spew out a lot of facts about something,” Werner advised his audience to start with a question to hook potential editors and producers. “Find the surprise,” he said. “Find a way to get them to hear what you’re saying.”

Werner provided examples from his own work. His “Urban Coyotes” series for PBS started with a question. Why are so many coyotes living in densely packed urban areas like NYC and Chicago? We've long known that coyotes dwell in our cities, Werner said, but they are so elusive that they're rarely seen.  

To study Chicago’s coyote population, researchers placed radio tracking devices on more than 600 coyotes over the course of 40 years. Werner joined the scientists in their tracking van as they set out to locate the coyotes at night.

He likened the tracking down of the coyotes to a heist movie in which investigators are tracking down stolen money. But in this case, the bounty is a four-legged predator. The natural parallel helped Werner build excitement around the science story. “The closer we are to the coyote, the more animated and excited the researcher becomes,” said Werner. “And the more he gets excited, the more my heart starts racing and my pulse quickens.”

Werner encountered another natural mystery in the Puget Sound, where recreational divers were noticing enormous deep-ocean sharks in shallow coastal waters off Seattle. Over the course of several years, the sharks became so familiar that local divers were able to name the sharks based on their unique personalities. Then suddenly all the sharks vanished.

Werner drew his audience in with the mystery of the shark appearance and disappearance using classic mystery storytelling. “The techniques that people use to tell a whodunnit, can also be applied to telling science stories,” said Werner.

By dropping hints about the mysteries of the coyotes and sharks throughout his lecture, Werner put this technique into practice in real time. At the conclusion of the lecture, he revealed that the deep ocean sharks were using the area as a nursery ground. Young sharks spent several years growing in the nutrient rich, protected waters until their instincts kicked in and they swam out to deeper waters.

Captivating an audience with mystery storytelling has wider implications as well, said Werner. The research project helped ensure proper protection for the shark nursery. “Compelling stories can move people to action,” Werner said.

Sometimes the mystery isn’t just how to tell a story, but how to capture a story, he said. For a PBS Nature project, Werner was tasked with capturing video of very fast diving behavior in gulls. There was no way to know where to point the camera, since from the surface this diving behavior happened completely randomly.

After speaking with locals, though, Werner learned there are certain times of year when the flying gulls are so dense that capturing a dive is more likely. When answering audience questions following the talk, Werner noted that this sort of challenge is exactly what inspired him to continue his work. “So much of this is like a puzzle,” said Werner, it requires a lot of problem solving and ability to adapt.

Werner also shared the importance of accuracy in a world where media sources like TikTok and YouTube are constantly vying for audience attention. If we want an informed society, said Werner, journalists need to provide good information that accurately portrays the science. Let story get in the way of facts, he warned, and you risk losing trust of your audience.

Successful science communication needs both good information and engaging storytelling. He told his audience that good communication is the best way to stand out in a world flooded with information. Don’t just look for answers, said Werner, “look for the questions that no one else is asking.”