Journalists, advocates, and policymakers recognize that stories that share the lived experiences of people, groups and communities can be powerful tools in shaping how we think about health and social issues. Yet, like any form of strategic communication, stories are not a magic bullet for social change. While they can inform, invite reflection, motivate, and persuade, they can also mislead, demobilize, and even backfire. We have conducted dozens of studies over the last decade to build the science of storytelling for social change. Our research identifies evidence-based strategies to enhance public understanding of complex social issues and the need for multi-faceted, systemic approaches to address them.
Journalists regularly tell stories about people who have experienced a variety of health and social problems. A sizeable body of research has found that stories can change attitudes and opinions about a variety of topics. However, stories told by journalists often do not adequately reflect the diverse perspectives from relevant social groups (by gender, race, ethnicity, for example) on social issues like family leave policy and early childhood education. This can be problematic because people overgeneralize from these story examples, which can lead to misperceptions about the types of people and groups who suffer from the problem. Personal stories can also invite audiences to blame individuals for problems that have broader societal causes and require multi-level policy interventions to solve. These findings highlight the need to consider what we know about how to tell compelling stories about people and groups that promote a broader understanding of the roles that laws and policies play in shaping health and social well-being.
What have we learned from our work on how to tell compelling stories for social change? For starters, while stories do not always offer clear advantages over other forms of communication about social issues, we have shown that stories can change how people think about social factors that shape health and increase support for evidence-based policies that target those factors (see here and here). Our work identifies several ingredients for successful stories for social change:
(1) Acknowledge that individuals make choices that affect their health and well-being but emphasize the social, economic, and environmental barriers to those choices (see here);
(2) Avoid incidental details that run the risk of making a character less empathetic or identifiable (see an example here, where details on a child’s interest in a first-person shooter video game led to judgments about parental choices and responsibility);
(4) Show how evidence-based policy solutions will help both the character themselves and the larger population(s) that they represent (see here and here).
Storytelling can be a valuable tool in shaping public understanding of social issues, but the characters in those stories, the people who tell them, and the ways in which those stories are told are consequential. Journalists should pay careful attention to the messages that personal stories convey – whether they adequately reflect diversity in perspective on an issue and whether they complement or undermine the larger message of the news story. Advocates and policymakers should not think of personal stories as a magic bullet for social change – they should carefully consider, curate, and (optimally) pre-test stories among members of the intended audience to ensure that they convey the intended message(s). Familiarity with the science of storytelling for social change can help to predict and avoid some of the possible pitfalls and increase the likelihood that the use of storytelling approaches will serve the goals of the organization.
Niederdeppe, J. (2022). Using Stories to Advance Population Health: What Does the Science Tell Us? Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science.
Niederdeppe, J., Winett, L. (2022). Storytelling for Social Change (PDF). Evidence for Action.
Niederdeppe, J., Winett, L., Xu, Y., Fowler, E. F, & Gollust, S. E. (2021). Evidence-based message strategies to increase public support for state investment in early childhood education: Results from a longitudinal panel experiment. Milbank Quarterly, 99(4), 1088-1131.
Niederdeppe, J., Roh, S., & Dreisbach, C. (2016). How narrative focus and a statistical map interact to shape health policy support among state legislators. Health Communication, 31(2), 242–255.
Niederdeppe, J., Heley, K., & Barry, C. L. (2015). Inoculation and narrative strategies in competitive framing of three health policy issues. Journal of Communication, 65(5), 838–862.
Our core team includes researchers at three institutions: Cornell University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Minnesota.
Support for this website was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.