How storytelling can be a force for social change

Peoples march

An estimated 310,000 people took part in the People’s Climate March held in New York City, ahead of the Climate Summit held at UN Headquarters in September 2014. UN Photo/Mark Garten

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Garth Japhet, CEO, Heartlines & Warren Feek, CEO, Communication Initiative

Did Harriet Beecher Stowe imagine in 1852 when she wrote her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that her story would be a spark that contributed to the abolition of slavery in America?

In the midst of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln met the author and famously said: “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?” Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and both American and European researchers agree it was instrumental in challenging people’s long-held beliefs about slavery.

It is not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin that has had an impact on world events: all the world’s major religions are based on stories that have shaped history and influenced just about every aspect of human behaviour.

In more recent years, there has been an amazing range of initiatives recognizing the power of the purposeful use of story to educate and influence people’s behaviour for the better.

A great example is Sesame Street, the TV series that debuted in 1969 with the express purpose of using stories to educate and influence preschoolers. Elmo, Big Bird and the Cookie Monster continue to enthrall, influence and educate more than 170 million children in 140 countries.

When the creators of Sesame Street wanted to help kids learn how to pay attention and control their impulses, they decided to make an example out of Cookie Monster — the character who cannot resist cookies. They realized children needed to see someone struggle with the same issues they struggled with and try multiple techniques to overcome them. In one recent skit, modelled on the Karate Kid movies, Cookie Monster needs three tries to learn a special move from his sensei. He finally masters listening with his whole body and, as a reward, he earns a cookie belt — which he eats.

This success rests on a simple formula, says Sesame Street’s Head of Research, Jennifer Kotler Clarke. One that wraps education in entertainment, harnessing the power of human narrative.

“Storytelling is critical. If you organize information in storytelling, children are more likely to learn it. And adults are, too.”

Research suggests children who watch Sesame Street average 11% higher in educational attainment than those who don’t.

In 2005 millions of rice farmers in Vietnam were persuaded to stop spraying their crops by the 104 episodes of radio soap opera Chuyen Que Minh (or Homeland Story), an initiative of the International Rice Research Institute. Farmers who tuned in to the stories were 31% less likely to spray their crops compared to those who didn’t.

Why does a story that is well told have power to shift our understanding and our behaviour?

Even in tech and business, people are waking up to the power of a good story to shape workplaces and markets. They are moving away from bullet points and using stories to inspire and inform. The World Bank’s Head of Talent Management, Steve Denning, said: “When it comes to inspiring people to embrace a vision or a change in behaviour, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools, it’s the only thing that works.”

There are some fascinating neurological explanations behind the power of stories, too. Science has begun to uncover what’s happening in our brains when we hear a good tale. In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that when we are presented with vivid stories, lots of different centres in our brains light up. For instance, if a ballet scene is beautifully described in a novel, the sight and movement centres of our brains respond (even for those of us who can’t dance). When a scent, such as jasmine, is described, our smell centre lights up. In short, we can have an emotional whole-brain experience rather than the tiny blip that happens when we are exposed to fact.

From a sociological point of view, stories have been shown to establish or reinforce social norms that support the behaviour that is being promoted. If the characters make healthy food choices or apply sunscreen, this can convey the sense that this is just what people do, and therefore the listener should too.

In South Africa, the long-running Soul Buddyz series, told through television, radio and print, closely reflects the lives, struggles and joys of kids between the ages of 8 and 12. It was so popular that thousands of children wrote in asking to participate. As a result, the Soul City Institute established Buddyz Clubs. Currently there are 8,642 clubs with nearly 150,000 children, dedicated to children’s education and well-being.

There is now a compelling body of evidence to support the idea that, with the right research and theoretical grounding, story-based media can shift social norms, values and beliefs more effectively than traditional, fact-based messaging. What is even more exciting is how digital technology is bringing compelling stories to millions of people at increasingly lower costs.

Just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the spark that led to the abolition of slavery, so the story can be used in many different ways to change our world for the better.

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