Tell Me a Story

I never wanted to be a communicator. Nobody does. Most people, when small, want to be a doer. A doctor, a police officer, an inventor, a teacher, a carpenter, an astronaut. (I used to joke that I wanted to be a philanthropist when I grew up.) The one thing that connects all of those things is that they change the world. Each of them takes something tangible and remakes it in some way that makes the world–even just a little bit–better, healthier, safer, more beautiful.

In the last few decades, we’ve seen that we can change some small bit of the world, a person, a house, an experiment, or we can do something bigger. This era of a “small world” has made a few of us realize that we can make bigger changes, influence more, make the world a much more beautiful place, save many more lives, by talking instead of doing.

Seth Godin made this point quite eloquently earlier:

More than ever, though, folks grow up saying, “I want to change the world.” More than ever, that means telling stories, changing minds and building a tribe.

For years (decades?), we tried to influence the world, to have an out-sized effect, by telling facts. Telling people to lock their car doors, to wash their hands, to get their vaccines, to have a preparedness kit, to invest, to take school seriously. But, telling people to do those things doesn’t always work. In fact, some people rebel quite stringently against it. And yet, we continue to tell people what to do, and why. Up to 300,000 people end up in the hospital every year from flu, so get your shot! A car is broken into every 20 seconds! Higher BMIs are associated with higher risk of chronic disease!

But increasingly, research is showing that it is stories, not statistics that drive action:

The researchers found that if organizations want to raise money for a charitable cause, it is far better to appeal to the heart than to the head. Put another way, feelings, not analytical thinking, drive donations.

The ad men have been using this idea for years to sell things to people:

The truly great storytellers have long embraced the fact that the most powerful stories happen in the mind of the audience, making each and every story unique and personal for the individual. They also understand that stories are important because they are inherent to the human experience. Stories are how we pass on our accumulated wisdom, beliefs and values. They are the process through which we describe and explain the world around us, and our role and purpose in it. Audiences have always known this and asked for stories—they’ve never asked for content.

So, why have we in government not understood that? Why do we still have closets full of tri-folds full of statistics? (Probably because we bought them ten years ago, and have still yet to run through our original order.)

But hope is not lost. There are folks out there that are working to collect stories in the hope of giving (at least public health) departments the types of stories that can change minds and hearts (hearts figuratively and hopefully literally). Both NACCHO and ASTHO are currently working to develop resource libraries of stories of success. While these story collecting efforts aren’t yet directed at the public, it’s a step in the right direction.

So my request for you is: tell me a story, about stories. What story has moved you? What will move others?


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