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How to Use Storytelling to Increase the Impacts of Research

Staff members Vaishnavi Vaidya, Jana Hirsch, and Yvonne Michael

June 27, 2019

Guest post written by Yvonne Michael, Jana Hirsch, and Vaishnavi Vaidya.

Last week we attended the June 2019 National Neighborhood Indicators Partnerships (NNIP) Meeting in Milwaukee, WI. This three-day meeting was designed to include panel presentations and sessions that allowed participants to share ideas, receive feedback on ongoing activities, and brainstorm across sectors.

During this meeting, we learned the importance of storytelling and how it is essential to research we do every day. There are many reasons to tell stories but some of the most important include: to connect with other people, to persuade others, to entertain, and to preserve history. For urban health research, storytelling is also critical for making sense of the facts. The work of NNIP partners is data-driven and it’s easy to become lost in the numbers. Storyteller, Scott Whitehair, shared with the group the What, How, and Why of data-driven storytelling. The workshop reminded us that behind each data point, there is a person with their own unique story. 

Stories have structure, plot, and characters. Including these elements in your story helps present the data in a meaningful way. Beyond these storytelling basics, Whitehair had several tips about how to succeed in telling a memorable story that connects with your audience:

  • Create a culture of storytelling. Beginning group meetings with an invitation for everyone to share a recent success creates an environment of meaningful engagement which will allow others to think about possible material for stories.
  • Fill your pantry with ingredients. Storytelling begins with raw material. Take the time to reflect, think about people, and ideas that strike you as interesting. Capturing ideas is the first step to telling your story.
  • Engage your audience. Asking a question, stating a mystery, or using an absurd statement is a great way to pique a reader’s interest. Don’t start with too much exposition or be too vague.
  • Don’t let your story become stagnant. Keep your story moving in the middle. Keep focused on the main purpose of the story and why you are telling it.
  • Keep your endpoint in mind. Know where your story will end and keep all parts of the story moving forward to that point. You may want to end your story with a call to action, your reflection on what this story means to you, or an answer to a question.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable in your storytelling. When you share information about yourself, this lets people know that you care about your story. Being vulnerable also makes people more interested in what you are saying and opens them up about their own relevant experiences. 
  • Appreciate your audience by paying close attention to listeners’ body language. Storytelling is not a one-way street. Be prepared for the story to change based on audience needs and interests.