The Value of Stories

Local health departments need effective communications methods to promote healthy behavior in the community, build support for local public health efforts, increase impact and influence with policymakers, the media and the public, and provide models of practice for other public health professionals. To ensure that your message resonates with your intended audience, it must be dynamic and memorable. The most effective way to do that is with a story.

If you ask people on the street about public health programs in your community, are they able to tell you about programs that may affect them? The important work performed every day by public health professionals often goes unnoticed by the communities they serve. When public health programs don’t work, on the other hand, everyone seems to hear about it. Stories can help bring attention to the ways public health programs interact with, support, and benefit communities.

People making decisions in government need to hear success stories to understand the impact of public health. From a training perspective, stories can help public health professionals learn from each other. Outlining challenges overcome and innovations developed to improve public health programs can help expand the reach of your efforts to other communities.

One aspect of public health programs that makes for difficult storytelling is the fact that these programs are often designed to treat populations, not individuals. As such, most public health reporting is focused on numbers and statistics. When is the last time you heard an interesting story about a bar chart? Probably not recently. That is because the abstract thinking that goes into processing numbers often “turns off” the part of our brain that generates an emotional response to a story. Putting a human face on the statistics could help the general public to have a more empathetic understanding of the benefits of these programs and ensure that media coverage is not limited to stories about public health shortcomings when things go wrong. Remember, although public health programs focus on populations, ultimately they also help individuals.