Storytelling is an ancient human tradition and a well-established means of passing on knowledge; whether it be portraying moral lessons through fables and fairy tales, or giving an insight into other cultures or eras through tales set in other contexts. Good stories keep audiences compelled by creating situations that resonate with them. This connection to a story makes audiences more likely to engage throughout, to retain the information presented, and to relate to the behaviour in the story in a way that can translate to their own lives. For these reasons narratives can play an important role in engaging people with health and health research. This is especially true when dealing with culturally or ethically complex issues where the telling of real-life stories can garner empathy and understanding from an audience in a way that a simple telling of the facts could not achieve. 

Caption: This video from the public relations organisation MSLGROUP explains some of the rationale behind why communicating ideas and engaging audiences with concepts through stories works so well. It is made for a corporate business audience but it is easy to see how the concepts are equally relevant to science and health engagement practice.

At the 2017 Wellcome Trust International Engagement workshop some examples of narrative and storytelling as an engagement tool were presented, including:

The Lucky Specials

The Lucky Specials is a feature-length film that tells the story of a fictional young South African miner and his journey through Tuberculosis. Through storytelling, the film presents issues of drug adherence and the realities and risks of Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis.

Fishy Clouds

Fishy Clouds, a puppet theatre show, was created to engage communities on issues of antimicrobial resistance and research with children in Thailand. The show uses visual storytelling to bring the research and behaviour around antimicrobial resistance to life for a broad range of audiences across different ages, locations, levels of education, and language.

Standing Voice project

The Standing Voice project, communicates facts about albinism through interactive performances, navigating the cultural complexity surrounding albinism in Tanzania.

Genome Adventures

Genome Adventures engages the general public and in particular school students in Botswana with genomics and biomedical research through a narrative comic book series.

Making Telling Two-Way

Storytelling can be an intrinsically one-way process, which is not ideal when we think of engagement. But, there are many ways to integrate a two-way flow of information into storytelling to create a more dialogue focussed engagement tool. For example, the process of developing a story can be a valuable two-way engagement practice. The story can be written by integrating the voices of many different stakeholders who must listen to one another to shape a coherent narrative. This process requires dialogue, learning and compromise on all sides.

Once created, stories and narratives can be used to communicate information and stimulate discussions but this too can be made two-way. Presentation of stories can be paired with interactive engagement activities, online or in person, to ensure two-way engagement is core to the project. 

How to Tell a Story

The below is taken from materials by Caroline van den Brul’s Narrative Skills course for researchers

Think about your story's purpose

  • Who is your audience?
  • What, if anything, is your audience expecting?
  • What does your audience know already about your topic?
  • What might your audience find interesting, strange, or surprising about your story?
  • How can you entice the audience into the world of your story and make them feel part of it?
  • What would you like the audience to think/feel after hearing your story?
  • How might the audience feel differently about your topic after hearing the story?

Consider the following

Situation: location and setting. 

Substance: platform, characters, what changes and how?

Structure: order the story to keep the audience engrossed.

Style: make sure the style is appropriate for a particular audience and brings the story to life.

Saliency: for every story choice you make the substance (what to include), structure (when to say what) and style (how to communicate each point) adds something important and interesting which will help your audience remain involved with your story, and feel intellectually and emotionally satisfied at the end of it.

Key questions

  • Do you have something interesting to say?
  • Will your story give your audience something new to make them feel/think/do something differently?
  • Will your audience be able to create their own story using yours as a springboard? Will your story inspire them to think about things they already know in a new way?

The content on this page forms part of the online report for the 2017 International Engagement Workshop "It's Complicated: navigating scientific complexity in public and community engagement". To learn more about the workshop, access the rest of the report and browse the video presentations, discussion summaries, and tools made available from it, visit the workshop page. 

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