Stories are an important part of the human experience. As we go about our days, we tell stories all the time. Yet when it comes to our professional lives, those of us leading change tend to forget the power of a good narrative. We assume that, if our strategy is good and we present compelling evidence, people will get on board. But I’ve learned that no matter how good you are at developing the strategy—even if you back it up with data—you will not be able to implement your plan if people are afraid or are not motivated to join you. To successfully motivate people, I’ve found that I need a different skill: the ability to tell a good story.
It is not accidental that traditions and cultures often are preserved through narrative and storytelling. Stories remind us who we are and what we believe, so we can navigate the complexities and uncertainties of life. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a purely rational decision; emotions often play a larger role than we think in informing our choices. Our emotions can help us see what we value in the world. We process every call for action or change through that emotional lens, and then we choose to act or not to act.
Public Narrative as a Skill
Communities leading transformation efforts can benefit from this insight, using stories to draw out emotions and motivate stakeholders. At ReThink Health, we have adapted a framework for change that centers on effective storytelling. Public Narrative has been used in many different arenas, from political campaigns to community activation, and in many different places in the world, from Japan and the Middle East to Latin America and the Balkans.
Developed by legendary community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, Public Narrative provides a way of thinking through the stories needed to mobilize people for collective action. The framework supports the development of three stories—a Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now—that are meant to shift sentiment from “we have to do this” or “we don’t want to do this” to “we want to do this and we believe we can.” Taken together, the three types of stories can help to build a compelling narrative that motivates change.
Health system transformation, in particular, can benefit from this approach because decades of false assumptions and misguided priorities have resulted in longstanding mistrust and real disagreement among stakeholders. For decades a common misperception has been that the best way to create healthier communities is to spend more money on health care. If only we had better hospitals or could afford more expensive care, this thinking goes, people would be healthier.
The evidence suggests, however, that to really improve health and well-being, we need to look not just at the health care system but at the entire health ecosystem, convincing organizations and communities to invest differently. To make this case, health leaders will need to think more broadly, embrace new tactics, and tap into emotions.
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