Telling A Good Story

Amy Hill StoryCenterAugust is National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM), an annual observance to highlight the importance of disease prevention through vaccination across the lifespan. Storytelling is an effective and essential part of any disease awareness campaign. Special thanks to guest author Amy L. Hill, MA, of StoryCenter, which helps real people share their personal stories to help build a healthy world.

Why is it important to tell a good story when trying to raise awareness about a disease?

When I visit a healthcare professional and see bulletin boards plastered with information-dense posters about particular health concerns, my eyes tend to glaze over. Fortunately, people working in public health have long understood the value of storytelling when it comes to education and awareness-raising related to diseases. Through stories, we can connect with people, rather than overwhelming them with abstract data. Stories, with their ability to invite us in, engage us, and take us on a journey, allow us to be more receptive to important health information. Stories can help people change behaviors to better prevent a particular disease or health problem by offering a real-life example of what change actually looks like. This is especially true during the current pandemic, when the knowledge base is expanding and changing on a daily basis. Of course, the key to all this is making sure that storytellers are honest and trustworthy. The profusion of disinformation about COVID-19 is exacerbating all the other challenges we’re facing in responding to the virus. But that’s another story.

What is your best advice on how to tell a good story?

Don’t try to make a point, or give advice, or talk about “other people.” Just share in your own voice, from your heart. At StoryCenter, we believe that good stories are simultaneously emotionally compelling, rich with detail and nuance, and concise. We focus on a very simple, first-person genre that supports real people sharing everyday moments from their own life experiences. Key to this approach is a willingness on the part of storytellers to make themselves vulnerable—to speak from their depths, rather than from the surface. When it comes to health-related stories, this means that storytellers must resist the impulse to give a chronological, blow-by-blow account of their experience of disease and instead focus in on a particular scene that captures a moment of change or realization. Sometimes it’s a conversation that surfaces previously unexplored memories of the past that have resonance for a storyteller’s life today. Sometimes it’s the witnessing of something painful, or an act of kindness or courage that inspires a storyteller to examine their own values and life choices. Whatever that moment is, we always urge our storytellers to dig deep for sensory details—what did it look like, sound like, feel like? Who was there? What did they say? How did you respond? All of these strategies can help make a story a story, rather than just a list of things that happened, one after another.

Here is a great example from the Hepatitis B Foundation #justB campaign:

How do you determine the right format—what makes a story best suited for sharing via audio, video, or in writing?

I’d actually turn the focus around and ask, “How can a great story best be crafted for a particular desired format?” As long as the story is really powerful, it can be adapted for any of these formats. For audio, such as radio or a podcast, interviews work really well, because they capture the natural rhythm and cadence of an individual’s speech, which holds so much emotional content in and of itself, in terms of tone of voice, inflection, volume, and rhythm. For video, it’s important to not overwhelm the medium with too much story and narration, and to have skill in articulating a visual treatment that adds to the story instead of merely duplicating content that has been spoken. Video is a time-based medium, which means it’s either five minutes or 30 minutes long, or somewhere in between. You can pause it, but you can’t change the pace of it, overall. Writing, on the other hand, offers the reader endless time for savoring each word and lingering over especially poignant phrases. So the particular details of a story can be elaborated and sentences and phrases can be more complex. As to deciding on format, a whole host of questions need to be addressed, including access to storytellers, privacy concerns, resources and time available for story development and production, and more.

What should you avoid when sharing your story?

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when telling stories from their own lives is speaking “in general.” As listeners or readers, we don’t want to hear broad-brush sketches of an experience, or about what some well-known person or expert believes. We want a zoomed-in, specific account of a particular time, place, situation—the story that only you can tell, because you’re the only one who lived it. Another mistake to avoid is giving too much context or background at the outset. This tends to spoil the potential sense of mystery of an unfolding story. Audiences want to be brought right into a significant moment; they don’t want to read your expository essay from seventh grade, when you learned how to introduce a topic, then give evidence for it, and then come to a predictable conclusion. They want reflection, nuance, subtlety. A colleague from years back often talked about “the tyranny of the happy ending.” If a storyteller has no happy ending, an attempt to manufacture one will undermine the entire story. Why not allow audience members to come to their own conclusions, about what has been shared and what it means for them? This is how storytelling can support health literacy, which is defined as, “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.”

Share Your Story

Learn more about free weekly webinars from StoryCenter on Storytelling in the Time of COVID-19.

View real stories from individuals who have been affected by infectious diseases at www.nfid.org/real-stories, including stories on hepatitis B and COVID-19 from StoryCenter. If you have a story to tell, please share it with NFID, to help others understand more about vaccine-preventable diseases, drug-resistant infections, and other infectious diseases.

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