Storytelling in Public Health

Photo Credit: H.Koppdelany

Why do some public health messages you create get “lost in space”? Whether these messages come in the form of flyers or brochures, conversations you have with others, or letters you write to influential local or state political figures, why do messages that educate and motivate people to act in the best interest of their health often fail to make their intended impact? People still smoke, fail to prepare for disasters, don’t exercise… well, you get the idea…

“That’s where storytelling comes in,” writes Kim Krisberg in her post on The Pump Handle science blog. “Underneath the scientific jargon and statistics, there’s almost always a story about public health improving someone’s life.” As a public health reporter, Krisberg believes that storytelling can help people better understand the role that public health plays in their lives, helping them envision the negative consequences of living without robust public health systems.

Communication through the art of storytelling is one way to grab audience attention and alert them to important messages. As a case in point, look at the CDC’s use of zombies to stress the importance of emergency preparedness. They use the story of a zombie apocalypse (delivered through a graphic novel) to demonstrate essential skills and plans needed to prepare for and increase your survival during any emergency — yes, even zombies.

Andy Goodman is another great advocate of effective story telling to promote good causes. A television writer-turned-consultant, he went from scribing shows like “The Nanny” to teaching best practices in the field of public interest communications. Read his book about “Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes” or register for one of his online workshops, such as Story-telling: Tapping the Power of Narrative.

Sure, statistics are important and scientific data can drive awareness of certain public health initiatives. But maybe Zachary F. Meisel, MD, MPH, MS said it best in his research “Narrative vs Evidence-Based Medicine—And, Not Or”:

Scientific reports are genuinely dispassionate, characterless, and ahistorical. But their translation and dissemination should not be. Stories are an essential part of how individuals understand and use evidence.

But don’t take our word for it. When we asked Shannon Hughes, Director of Workforce Development at the Florida Department of Health, about her thoughts on the topic, she said that “we do ourselves a disservice by not understanding how to communicate through the art of storytelling.” Hughes believes storytelling is one of the top 7 must-have skills for any public health professional. “Instead of using charts and graphs and statistics, which are also important, we have to hone our ability to tell the story of a situation and [leverage it into] a call to action – whether it be on a community or individual level.”

If any OMP participant has questions or thoughts about this post, please type them in the comments sections under this post (online) or email the program coordinator at OMP@health.usf.edu.

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