How to Tell Stories About Complex Issues

Annie Neimand of Stanford Social Innovation Review

Storytelling is one of the greatest tools we have for engaging communities on complex social and environmental issues, in ways that can drive belief and behavior change. People are far more likely to remember information if it reaches them in the form of a story. Good stories also have an incredible ability to reduce counterarguing on divisive issues. And when people are transported by a great story, they remember the events in the story and feel like the experiences were their own. As a result, the story has the power to influence future beliefs on related issues.

Many of the issues the social sector is working on—including climate change, criminal justice reform, sexual violence, racial justice, health equity, and quality education—are complex, and the problems associated with them result from flawed, interconnected, institutional policies and practices, cultural norms, and ways of thinking. We often talk about addressing these problems, also known as systems-level thinking, using data and abstract terms like “equity” and “justice.” However, this way of talking about complex issues leaves space for people to insert their assumptions and biases about what those words mean, and no one has ever taken action because of a great graph or data point.

Organizations must therefore tell stories that help people make sense of the different complexities that shape the issue they are tackling. This is particularly true when communicating with people who do not easily see problems such as gender bias in the workplace or lack of access to quality health care as an outcome of a larger system.

The science of storytelling—the study of how to tell stories intentionally to overcome psychological barriers that can inhibit or encourage belief and behavior change— provides insights that can help organizations tell compelling and persuasive stories about complex issues.

In October 2016, my colleagues at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) and I brought together 25 scholars from around the world who study different aspects of storytelling. The objective of our convening was to dive into the science of what makes one story better than the next. Ann Christiano, Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications, and Matt Sheehan, director of stories and emerging platforms, and I have since developed a framework for building better stories—rooted in the best of what we know from the science we explored during this meeting and in further research. Below, we apply four of these insights specifically to stories about complex issues.

1. Tell stories about individuals.

Stories about complex issues are best told through the lives of people whose experiences illustrate the various systems at play. In her study of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories over a 20-year period, Cardiff University media scholar Karin Wahl-Jergunson found that 62 percent of the stories were about extensive, complex societal issues told through the lens of individuals whose lives exemplified those problems. The system(s) may be a character in the story (a monster to overcome). Or they may be the setting in which your characters experience certain events.

For example, the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, produced by Maria Shriver’s multi-platform project The Shriver Report, did this exceptionally well. As the synopsis explains:

The day-to-day challenges faced by millions of women in America today are seen through this story of one single mom in Tennessee and her struggle to support her family on a near-minimum-wage salary. Filmed in Chattanooga, TN, the film traces a year in the life of Katrina Gilbert, an overworked, underpaid and uninsured 30-year-old woman scraping by as a certified nursing assistant while caring for her three young children.

By the end of the film, we understand the various social factors that limit the choices she must make as she works to provide for her family. We see her underpaid, with little access to health care and childcare, and leave the story with a deeper understanding of gender and poverty, a desire to change the system for women like Katrina, and clear policy solutions.

Stories that anchor complex issues in the lives of individuals are not only more engaging, but also more likely to change people’s behavior. Paul Slovic, social psychologist at the Decision Institute at the University of Oregon, studies why people are apathetic toward information around genocide and massive crimes against humanity. He argues that people experience psychic numbing—the withdrawing of attention and empathy—when presented with a large amount of data surrounding an atrocity. He found that as the magnitude of deaths and atrocities increase, our emotional response becomes smaller and smaller.

In a recent study on psychic numbing and the Syrian conflict, Slovic and his colleagues found that stories like that of Aylan Kurdi, the boy whose body washed ashore after fleeing from Syria, can move people to learn more about the issue and take action. After the story of Alyan went viral, Google searches for the Syrian conflict spiked and donations to a fund specifically designated to aid Syrian refugees dramatically increased. While donations have slowly decreased over time, giving is still higher than before we learned his story.

Finally, stories can be much more effective at changing belief or behavior when people identify with a character—including his or her cultural norms, socioeconomic status, social identities, geographic location, life experience, or values. Whether the issue is increasing HPV screenings among African-American and Hispanic women or building support for social determinants of health (SDH) policy, when people identify with a character, the story is more likely to be influential and capture their attention.

A good example of this is the character Peggy Olsen in the hit TV series Mad Men, a fictional drama that followed the lives of New York advertising professionals in the 1960s and 1970s. While most viewers understood that women faced workplace discrimination during this time, it may have been hard for those who did not live those experiences to truly understand the social and institutional norms that supported gender bias and discrimination. Through the storyline of Peggy, a young woman working her way up through the male-dominated agency, the audience experiences the various systemic and social factors shaping her experience. We watch feeling the injustice she feels as she experiences both implicit and explicit bias within the organization and the culture she lives. Even people with a more individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” worldview could see that Peggy was not starting on a level playing field.

 At the same time, she is not an extreme characterization of feminism that may be hard for some audiences to connect with. As Elisabeth Moss, the actress who plays Peggy, told Vulture, “She is not going to be a hippie, she’s not gonna start burning bras. She’s a different kind of feminist. She’s the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business. And her progressiveness and her brand of feminism—it comes in probably a bit of a more realistic way, you know? Those were the women—there were more of those women than were the hippies who burned bras and picketed. Those women were the ones who were actually, you know, going in and asking for equal pay, and asking for equal rights, and demanding to be treated better in the workplace. That’s who she is.” In this way, Peggy is a relatable character that provides a way for the audience to experience and walk away with an understanding of systemic sexism in the workplace.

2. Give your audience two plus two.

The best stories leave space for your audience to put the pieces together. Think about your favorite movies and books. The moral of the story was probably never explicitly stated, but instead shown through the characters’ experiences. In the same way, our task is to tell stories about social issues that let our audience do some of the work. In other words, rather than giving them four, we need to give them two plus two. This is particularly important when we tell stories about complex issues that involve a number of interconnected factors.

The New York Times article “Love’s Road Home” did this very well. The real-life story centers on Ashley Volk, a young woman who loves her boyfriend Samuel J. Siatta and desperately wants to marry him. They are childhood sweethearts and eager to start their life together. However, Samuel is a US veteran who served in Afghanistan and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. When he returned home, he got into some trouble with the law, ran out of his disability pension, and has had a hard time finding work. The couple continually have to put off their wedding due to finances. Ashley is working tirelessly to support the man she loves as he looks for work and manages his mental health needs. Spoiler alert: Samuel takes a carpentry course and begins an apprenticeship with the local carpenters’ union, which values hiring vets—but only after a judge who had lost a nephew in Afghanistan heard his story. Two weeks later, on Halloween, Ashley and Samuel married.

The reason this story resonates is because it is not another sad account of the messy US Department of Veteran Affairs systems, or the limited resources for rehabilitating vets and integrating them back into civil society. It is also not a factsheet laying out the various factors that lead to this complex, systemic problem. It is a love story—in the Times’ Vows section. We come to understand the complexity of mental health, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society for vets, because we experience those issues through this couple’s journey together. We are rooting for them. We can imagine what it is like to love someone and not be able to marry them because of social and economic factors. By the end of the article, we care about this couple and are eager to find a solution to systemic barriers limiting vets like Samuel from finding work. We come to learn that working with organizations to hire vets can be a potential solution to this problem. People who may have never read about vet issues not only understand the issue, but also care about it and have a story they can share with their friends and family when discussing the issue.

3. Be strategic with your empty spaces.

When telling stories about complex issues to people who disagree with us, what we include in the story is just as important as what we leave out. My colleagues and I refer to this as being strategic with your empty spaces and your full spaces. People come to stories with their own assumptions and perspectives, and we have to account for them. To account for bias, we must leave empty space for people to see themselves and their values and worldview reflected in the story. At the same time, we must create full spaces with details about systemic factors that correct biases and assumptions.

For example, Jeff Niederdeppe, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University, and his colleagues studied the use of narrative to build understanding of social determinants of health (SDH)—acknowledging the role of socioeconomic factors and institutionalized policies in shaping health outcomes—and its persuasiveness for changing SDH policy. This sort of policy change can be threatening to people who see health as an individual’s responsibility, and presenting people with information that challenges how they see health may make them more likely to avoid your information or find a reason to justify why you are wrong. Telling stories that start with people’s worldview, however, and yet overrides their biases can be effective at gaining their support.

Niederdeppe and his colleagues write:

Health advocates should frame messages to acknowledge a role for individual decisions about behavior but emphasize SDH. These messages might use narratives to provide examples of individuals facing structural barriers (unsafe working conditions, neighborhood safety concerns, lack of civic opportunities) in efforts to avoid poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination, and other social determinants …These narratives and images should not distract attention from SDH and population health disparities, activate negative stereotypes, or provoke counterproductive emotional responses directed at the source of the message.

This is exactly what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) did in a campaign to persuade moderate conservative congressmen and their staff to support SDH policy. Through research, RWJF’s team discovered that this group saw health as an individual’s journey, and used that metaphor to tell stories of individuals who were on a journey to better health, but who faced systemic barriers other populations may not face.

4. Paint a picture in the mind of your audience.

Organizations often rely on abstract concepts like equity, innovation, and justice to communicate big, complex ideas. However, these concepts leave room for people to make assumptions about what they mean. What justice means to conservatives will be different than what it means for liberals, for example. Vague language may signal a particular political stance on an issue or solution, leading people to avoid or deny that issue or solution if they feel it threatens their preferences. Instead of using abstract concepts, we should use visual language that paints a picture of what the problems and solutions associated with these concepts look like in the mind of our audience. People are more likely to remember your message and less likely to misinterpret your information when you use visual language. Doing so will ensure that your audience knows exactly what you are talking about when you say “innovation” or “equity,” and avoid triggering any potential psychological barriers.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did this masterfully in his famous March on Washington speech, “I Have a Dream.” He conveyed the urgency of freedom through visual language. Freedom is an abstract concept. To make it tangible, he created picture after picture in the minds of the audience of what freedom looks like: “One day right in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” and “former slaves and former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brother­hood.” These visuals allow us to imagine what an equitable world looks like.  

Stories are one of the most powerful tools we have for increasing understanding and building engagement with complex issues. Applying the science of storytelling can help organizations be more effective in finding and telling stories that drive belief and behavior change.

Annie Neimand (@annieneimand) is the research director for the Center for Public Interest Communications in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. She is also a doctoral candidate in the University of Florida Department of Sociology, Criminology and Law.

Photo by 

Elijah O’Donnell

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