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Public Health: What’s Our Story?

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 12.51.52 PM Every year, CDC’s National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media (NCHCMM) brings health communicators from all over the country to one place to do one thing (which happens to be our favorite thing!) — share ideas for how to talk about health.

We always look forward to this event, but we were especially excited by this year’s theme. The conference title was “What’s Your Story?” — and at the center of many of the week’s presentations was storytelling, a CH favorite. We’ve written about storytelling before, so there’s no need to rehash the critical role it plays in health communication. But it was great to be reminded of why that’s true.

The opening keynote presentation at NCHCMM this year was given by Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story. Mr. Smith defined a story as a fact (or facts) plus an emotion. Then he gave a super simple example (courtesy of E.M. Forster) to illustrate his point.

This, he said, is not a story: “The king died and then the queen died.”
But what about this: “The king died and then the queen died of grief.”

That is a story. Two additional words and you have a story. Fact + emotion = story.

I like this for a lot of reasons. First, as I said, it really makes you back up and look at what we actually mean when we talk about stories. It also reminds us that stories don’t have to be wordy — they really don’t! You can communicate facts and emotions without departing from the plain language principles of clear communication.

Mr. Smith went on to discuss the element of surprise — how great stories generally have 2 of them: one in the beginning that hooks the audience, and another toward the end to make sure they remember the story. You can see this even in the miniature story from his example: the king died?! — you’re interested. And in the end, you have the addition of the emotion, which here basically functions as surprise #2. The queen died, too, but of grief. What happened to her, you wonder. It’s something you’re going to remember.

Sometimes, we get so accustomed to the conversation about a public health strategy (or anything, really), that we forget why we’re having it in the first place. Stories can help health communicators reconnect to the people we’re trying to reach and remind us why we’re doing this work in the first place. So let’s keep talking about what makes a good one. Together, let’s learn how to craft even better stories.

Because you know what? People’s lives depend on it — and that’s not an exaggeration.

Looking forward to next year, NCHCMM.

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