The power of storytelling to create behaviour change

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As a journalist I have never doubted the power of storytelling – telling stories is what I am most passionate about. I have an insatiable appetite for curiosity for the world around me, and throughout my career, I have always strived to provide audiences with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives. 

In this article I share my personal experience of how stories can create lasting behaviour change.

Journalism vs Storytelling

Working in a fast-paced 24-hour newsroom for almost two decades, I mastered the art of distilling complex information into meaningful stories that were engaging, informative and educational. A story is far easier to remember than a number or statistic, and so often faced with heavy data I used stories to communicate a message that drove change by tapping into the hearts and minds of the audience. 

In a highly technological and digital era, the boundary between journalist and storyteller has become increasingly blurred – anyone with a smartphone can capture a story and become a ‘citizen journalist’. But citizen journalists are not trained or accountable to any organisation or regulator, so information is less reliable and the truth behind a story can become diluted.

Regardless though of by whom or where stories are shared, they fundamentally help to shape our perspectives and make sense of life. They give us a fresh lens through which to view the world. They are at the heart of every conversation and enable an experience to be transferred from one person to another – travelling far beyond the individual who first lived it. 

Why the characters matter

Storytelling has played a huge role in my life since I was a child. I found it easy to lose myself in the characters and worlds that seems so far removed from reality. Through storytelling I essentially experienced the theory of narrative transformation – the feeling of being immersed in a story and leaving the real world behind. I loved writing my own stories, simply because I could create any kind of character I imagined – I could shape their voice, goals and motivations.

There are of course multiple components that go into making a ‘great’ story, but as a journalist finding the best characters to tell your story is imperative – people are most interested in people. Characters need to be believable, or we switch off, lose interest and move on. The reason why we continue to watch a film or read a book, is because somewhere we identify with the character and invest our precious time in learning their fate. 

The well documented narrative archetype known as Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero Journey’, where a hero goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed – is a template that has inspired countless stories from ancient myths to TV shows, to movies and journalism.

Whilst the hero’s journey has been an extremely popular storytelling principle, it has also become limited in a media landscape that now encourages a collaborative approach to storytelling. Modern society that exists on the platforms of Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube, actively seeks a more authentic and collective journey than that of a single hero. 

Stories through lived experience

It is this deeper more cohesive connection that lends extra weight to the importance of sharing personal stories to impact behaviour and change attitudes. Through stories, we build communities by expressing our thoughts, feelings, struggles and joys. Stories provide the common ground that allows people to understand each other beyond the surface level, and the ones we remember the most are the ones that makes us feel something.

Emotionally driven narratives increase the level of engagement – the more a story resonates with an individual, the more likely they are to change their behaviour. And it is this feeling that motivated me to tell my own personal story within my workplace. 

In addition to being a journalist, I have also been on my own personal journey of mental ill health, and whilst my struggles were well documented amongst my colleagues, I never shared them publicly. I was always fearful of being seen as weak or jeopardising my career, and didn’t want to be treated differently. Several years ago though, an editor approached me to go on camera and talk about my story for an internal campaign to raise awareness of mental ill health in the company. After learning that I would be joined by several other employees, I reluctantly said yes. Despite feeling incredibly vulnerable, I knew I needed to do it – I was tired of hiding behind a mask of shame and inauthenticity. 

I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would receive, but shortly after my video went live on the intranet, I was inundated with words of kindness. I had an inbox full of messages thanking me for sharing my story and saying that they felt not only less alone, but also empowered to share theirs and ask for help. I am glad to say that the campaign continues to be a key component of the organisation’s overall workplace culture encouraging an open dialogue surrounding mental health. 

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My own personal story has changed beyond all recognition this past year both professionally and personally, and whilst it has at times been painful, it has also helped me to grow in ways I never knew I needed to. Everyone has a story, in fact we all have multiple stories running at any one time, and I have been incredibly grateful to those who have shared theirs with me these past months.  

The pandemic has taught us all many things, but without a doubt it has shown us that community nourishes and builds bonds. The benefits of sharing stories are ever more apparent and are without a doubt hugely influential in changing behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Our brains will always be wired to connect with other people, and stories offer a deeply human way to accomplish that goal. I encourage every organisation to invest time in finding the voices of those who are willing to share their story – I truly believe that the sharing of lived experience through stories is an invaluable tool to help break down stigma, grow trust and build more productive workforces.

About the author

Laura Hearn is Founder and CEO of Meraki Creative Content – a creative content consultancy that uses storytelling as a vehicle to increase visibility, credibility and evoke meaningful.

Laura Hearn is a creative broadcast journalist with more than 15 years of frontline journalism within the BBC. She has covered major news events and worked alongside some of the BBC’s leading talent, producing sensitive and highly detailed content. A skilled storyteller, Laura uses an editorial approach combined with a journalist’s mindset to help individuals and organisations engage with their audience with clarity and consistency.  

Laura is also a passionate mental health advocate and was a key member of the BBC’s internal mental health campaign. Drawing on her own personal experience, she uses the tools she learnt in the US alongside her skills as a storyteller to train leaders in mental health awareness.

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