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We are Immune to Numbers: The Importance of Story Telling

Public health is a very data-driven field. And yet, in India, the numbers are so huge and so startling that we quickly become desensitized to them. We have a population of 1.3 billion people, with 35.7% children underweight (NFHS 2015-6). Once you have accepted this reality, the numbers will no longer move you. Apparently, this is not just an Indian thing, statistics are losing their “power” everywhere, see this recent article from the Guardian.

So what does move people? Stories still move us. Despite our statistical training in public health, our brains are hard-wired to understand and retain stories. Numbers, reason, and logic will simply not have the same recall factor. Stories give our data salience and traction in a way our research results simply cannot do. At the recent EvalFest in Delhi, Marco Segone mentioned that all cultures give value to the pursuit of truth. And yet, many simply don’t find that (‘truth’) in data. Facts alone simply fall short.

We can look at the maternal mortality rate of 167, and it’s a dull meaningless figure. It sounds a little more interesting when we say its reduced from 254 in 2005-6, but still – hard to relate to. However, if we describe the scenario of “a teenage mother in labour, walking to a facility to deliver her baby, only to get there and find there is no doctor or nurse present, then having to deliver on her own in the facility with sleeping stray dogs everywhere, and dust blowing through the front door and out the back door.” This is moving. You don’t even have to say the young mother is scared. You feel her fear.

So what do we need to do to create a good story? In my work I am often telling stories, but I decided to expand my skill set on this, and so recently completed a story telling course with IDEO. Their tips include:

  • Understand your audience and what they care about

  • Create a story blueprint and get feedback

  • Keep sharing your story, keep getting feedback and revise accordingly

  • Use anecdote, reflection and emotion to make your story more compelling

  • Use great visuals

As you develop your story, I found that it’s really important to get feedback on your story from different types of people – people who are subject experts, people who don’t know what you’re talking about and even people who don’t care what you’re talking about (to see if you’ve managed to get them anyway). If you don’t seek broad feedback you run the risk of only getting positive and affirmative feedback and then not really making progress.

Everyone has the potential to be a great storyteller. I have always been one, and have always loved being around other story tellers too. But it’s great to really stop and figure out how to do this better – especially in a field which is so quantitatively focused.

Additional Resources on Story Telling

The Science of Storytelling:

An article that describe the science and brass tacks steps in creating a good story.

Four Truths of the Story Teller by Peter Gruber

An excellent article that explains how important story telling is to leadership. He provides four key truths to make stories work; being honest; delivering something your audience cares about; being ‘in the moment’ and having a sense of mission.


A book about how to inject drama and story into presentations, to ensure you really movie audiences.

Two Articles from Stanford Social Innovation Review

Both articles provide great practical advice for using stories to communicate complex systemic issues, and emphasize the need for change.

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