SCIENCE AND STORYTELLING: START WITH A STORY

Effective communication comes in many forms, especially today, with such a wide range of content formats available at our disposal around the clock. The effectiveness of that communication relies on the messenger’s ability to reach the consumer where it will have the most resonance.

 

When that communication is overly complex or scientific in nature, it can sometimes be difficult to convey complete messaging without losing the attention of your audience. Artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics are, for example, fascinating topics to me, but I frequently don’t have the attention span or ability to absorb such complex ideas, especially when the information is paced by a lot of numbers, data, charts and equations. Hey, I’m a writer, not a numbers guy.

 

Attention to your consumer, adaptability to that consumer’s needs, the ability to adjust to the optimal platform and the willingness to build the right partnerships to make your message resonate strongly are all components of effective communication.

 

This week Lessing-Flynn hosted an official side event to the 2018 Borlaug Dialogue and discussed the complexity of science and storytelling with two of the most prominent members of the science community — Dr. David Nabarro and Dr. Lawrence Haddad. Both Nabarro and Haddad were named the 2018 World Food Prize laureates (you can see their acceptance speeches here).

 

At the event Nabarro and Haddad discussed storytelling today as one of the most effective ways to connect global policy outcomes to hungry, malnourished bellies around the world and what government and industry can do to fill nutrition needs. And, communication through storytelling is definitely not a one-way street.

 

“The thing that I’ve learned the most is to listen to people as I speak and ideally before I speak. But it’s not just listening with my ears — it’s listening with my whole being, and it’s feeling what they themselves are concerned about in the process of the interaction, so when stories do get told and the conversation does happen, I hope that I’m influenced by what I’m feeling and hearing from those with whom I’m working,” said Nabarro, founder and coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition(SUN) Movement and director of 4SD, a group working toward sustainable development around the world. “So often, they do point out to me that many of my assumptions and ideas have to be quite radically shifted if the communication is going to work.”

 

Communicating a complex set of ideas like that underpinning the effort to bolster not just the quantity but the nutrition of food around the world — especially for mothers and young children in the developing world — starts with identifying what will resonate most strongly, according to Haddad. Sometimes that means using statistics and data, while at others, a storytelling strategy is more effective. That’s especially true when addressing such a personal, visceral issue as human malnutrition.

 

“The language of nutrition is very complicated and challenging. We have to keep it simple and come up with memorable phrases that stick,” said Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and SUN executive committee member. “I’m always looking for memorable phrases that stick, that I can use again and again and that will have some resonance. Personal stories are really important.”

 

Leveraging personal storytelling as a communication tool is just part of the equation for Nabarro. He works to connect those stories to key audiences that represent an array of stakeholders relating to world nutrition. After decades of work in the developing world, he’s had many experiences, and he said it’s important to connect those stories to real outcomes that affect stakeholders directly. That’s when storytelling can affect positive change, the former United Nations official said, relating to his experience working on health and nutrition issues with families in Katmandu, Nepal.

 

“We found children who had malnutrition during the monsoon months were the same children who did not grow physically as much as other children did. It wasn’t just their bodies and bones that weren’t growing. Their brains weren’t growing. And actually, we could see the results. We learned over time, we realized there was a direct link between this malnutrition in early childhood and how well a child would perform in school,” Nabarro said. “Who got interested in that? Not so much the doctors and the health officials, but the prime minister’s office. They said ‘Hey, there’s a problem here. If our children because of malnutrition in early life are doing badly in school, this is not good for our country.’ So, we actually started to see politicians realizing that malnutrition was an issue they had to deal with for national development.”

 

That kind of action depends not just on the right communication, but also the right partnerships to make it resonate with the target audience. In the global nutrition sector, governments and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) are typically the leaders of the effort. But, private industry plays a role, and it’s important to make the right connections like these, not just between messenger and consumer, but also different constituents of the messenger group.

 

“Many in our field say they don’t want to engage with businesses at all when it comes to nutrition in the public sphere. We use diplomatic language to say that is nonsense,” Haddad said. “Businesses are already shaping our food choices. We’re trying to identify ways businesses can become part of the solution. To do that, the first step is to get the two groups in the room. Business folks and nutrition folks have more in common than they do that sets them apart. There’s more that unites them than divides them.”

 

Have a complex, complicated idea you want to share with the masses? Don’t overthink it and get wrapped up in today’s myriad options for communications. Instead, start with a story.

 

 

Check out photos from our event below!

 

 

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