What is storytelling?
Storytelling is an ancient communication technique – humans have always communicated through stories. A story is generally what we would refer to as ‘anecdotal evidence’, used to describe or illustrate a point.
By using stories, we show rather than tell the audience our message.
- have a cohesive narrative
- humanise data
- connect the audience to the research
For the purposes of this Guide, we define storytelling as: ‘Communicating ideas or information in the form of oral, written, or visual narratives in order to engage an audience’.
Why use storytelling for communicating prevention research?
We know that most of the data generated by prevention research is not being translated into practice.
Storytelling gives us a tool to evoke an emotional response. By engaging our audiences, they are more likely to remember and access our research.
Storytelling does not replace traditional forms of science communication, nor does it dumb down the science. It is simply a different way of delivering information that generates interest in our work and a desire for change.
The benefits of storytelling
Stories increase engagement
They are inspirational, creating an emotive response that can inspire action or behaviour, and change minds.
Storytelling helps to make a message or concept ‘stick’ in people’s minds. They can be used to show why change is needed and create urgency for action.
Stories help us to be heard
Stories bring data alive, helping us to be noticed. They can hold the audience’s attention.
Stories create empathy and engender an emotional reaction in the audience. By making our message relatable, we can show how our message and values have relevance for the audience.
Stories help us demonstrate the value of our work
Stories put our work in context so we can demonstrate impact in the real world.
We can use stories to demonstrate the small wins in changing a complex system – the incremental, unexpected or unintended benefits of prevention that affect the wider community.
The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.Donald Calne, neurologist.
Stories bring messages to life
Storytelling works as a tool for prevention messaging
VicHealth’s research has shown that allowing people affected by an issue to tell their own stories is more engaging and effective than telling their stories for them.
For example, first person stories on lived experience of a risk factor resonate more than third person accounts calling for increased regulation.
The research shows that using real examples and real people brings the message to life and helps to create persuasive and emotionally compelling communications.
Another persuasive argument for using storytelling is that industry is using it to very good effect.
How to find your story
- must be true – a real person, not an abstract concept
- must be relatable
- must be relevant to your message
Define the audience and purpose
Who is your audience, and what do you want them to think, feel or do?
People respond to stories they can relate to. Think of a story that resonates with this audience.
Define the messages
What are your key messages? List just one or two points or insights.
Can you think of an example that illustrates these points?
Define the character/s
Make the central character relatable. Give a little background information so the audience feels empathy with this person.
The character can be you. What motivated you? What was the lightbulb moment when you saw a solution, or realised your work was worthwhile? – see Prescribe a run in the park for better health
A public health researcher was trying to describe the impact of her work on providing healthy school lunches in Tasmania. She had data on how many schools and children had benefitted, but progress was slow and the data did not reflect the amount of work she and her colleagues had put into the program.
The story she chose was about a little boy who often ran away from school at lunchtime. When healthy school lunches were implemented, he started to stay at school all day, and was able to concentrate throughout the afternoon. His grades improved and the teacher noticed benefits in terms of class behaviour in general.
The turnaround for this one little boy encapsulated the small wins that had been made by the project, and make the audience see that the work is worthwhile.
Note: There were concerns that this story would unnecessarily stigmatise the community in question. But positive framing can turn it around into an inspirational story of success.
How to tell your story
A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Sometimes stories are based on Hollywood plots with 3 acts, or a 12-stage hero’s journey. But there are only three basic elements to every story:
How to frame your story
According to VicHealth’s research, public health messaging is more effective when it is positive and vision-focused rather than negative and problem-focused.
They recommend that stories are both aspirational and common sense.
Examples of storytelling
Stories can be written, audio, video or data visualisation. Here are some great examples.
- Register to find out more about VicHealth’s values-based messaging
- Visit Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science
- Visit Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University (and listen to their webinar series)
- Read Alan Alda’s book: If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?
- Listen to the NPR The science behind storytelling podcast
- Listen to Professor Penny Hawe’s podcast on finding creative ways to communicate prevention
More from the CERI User Guide
This chapter of the User Guide is one in a series available from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre website. It was prepared by members of the Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) Coordinating Group to provide practical tips on knowledge mobilisation and science communication for researchers working in the prevention of chronic disease.
Thank you to Dr Tara Boelsen-Robinson of RE-FRESH CRE for her input.
The Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI) is a joint initiative between the Prevention Centre and several NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence, established in June 2020 to enhance the profile and impact of chronic disease prevention in Australia. We are working together to find alignment in the policy and practice implications of our work and to develop shared communications across our various projects and participating centres.