Changing the World One Story at a Time

Interview with Nedra Kline Weinreich

(Excerpted from Collaborative Services Blog.)

Your firm's expertise is in helping people adopt change to improve their lifestyles. That sounds challenging, to say the least. How does storytelling help?

Getting people to change their behavior for the better is definitely a challenge! Storytelling is one approach of many -- but a very powerful one! -- that can make it more likely that someone will take action. Our brains are wired to respond to stories, and they can influence our thinking and behaviors in several different ways. When we read someone else's story, we vicariously experience their challenges and learn by seeing the consequences of how they try to resolve the problems -- both positive and negative. Research has found that our brains light up in the same spots as the actions taking place in the story! When the character runs, the brain's "running center" is activated; when she is in danger, our own brain becomes more alert.

This means that characters modeling positive behaviors in the story and being rewarded for it, or overcoming common setbacks, can be very effective. Stories can also establish or reinforce social norms that support the behavior you are promoting; if the characters make healthy food choices or put sunscreen on over the course of the story, this can create the feeling that this is just what people do and so they should too. This is especially effective when the reader/viewer feels that the characters are very similar to themselves.

A recent randomized study of African American men with high blood pressure had one group view DVDs featuring videos of people like themselves telling their own stories of how they coped with having hypertension and keeping it under control. The other group watched DVDs with health segments from a TV news program. Those who had uncontrolled hypertension and watched the story-based DVDs achieved a drop in their blood pressure as significant as for those receiving medication in other trials. Now, that's powerful!

Your firm uses something called "transmedia storytelling." Can you explain what that is? It sounds a lot more than just a bedtime story.

Transmedia storytelling basically means telling different parts of a story across multiple platforms and media. It's a way of making a story more immersive and interactive, turning the audience into participants rather than just passively reading or watching the narrative. Many movies and television shows (as well as marketers) are now using this approach to draw people into their story, on whatever platform the audience happens to be using. Shows like Heroes, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and movies like District 9, Prometheus and others purposefully seed different story elements across media to draw people into the story in different places. So, a show might have some of the characters tweeting or posting to Facebook in real time, writing blog posts, uploading short videos to YouTube or sending text messages to participants; it might create a faux website for a key company in the story world, distribute business cards, put on a live event or offer an online game that gives you clues to get to the next part of the story.

I'm most interested in transmedia storytelling as a way of creating an immersive experience that makes positive health or social change more likely. To grab people's attention, we need to have an engaging story with characters our audience can relate to. To spur action, we need to use proven behavior change models that provide a framework for the elements to include in the story arc. When we can make the different parts of the story appear where our audience spends its time, the characters can start to feel like trusted friends, and we can provide opportunities for interaction and participation. Social media is a great place to do this, with character tweets showing up in our audience's Twitter stream, videos posted on their Facebook pages, and even things like a LinkedIn page that provides some backstory for a character or a Pinterest board that highlights the character's interests and rounds them out to make them seem more real.

So I take it social media is vital for storytelling?

Social media has opened up many storytelling opportunities, particularly for non-profits, because of its ease of use and low cost. But it is by no means vital! Storytelling has been around since cavemen sat around the fire telling each other about the mammoth that got away. All you need are two humans, and the storytelling can happen. Face-to-face storytelling is certainly powerful, but so are books, videos, audio, comics and any of the other myriad ways people communicate with each other. When you combine different media, and tell stories from alternate points of view, it gets even more interesting.

Can you give me an example of a campaign you created that used storytelling?

I've been involved with UCLA and Health Net in developing a health-focused online social network for teens called T2X, for which we created an ongoing transmedia series called Club. We worked with a group of talented teen actors at a local performing arts high school to create a series of video episodes highlighting different topics related to health care literacy in a fun way. The story followed a fictional group of students who were in the school Health Club, and was shot in the mockumentary style of The Office. From those videos, we pulled out different story elements that augmented and provided more details related to the plot. For example, in the first video, one student is asked to search for some information online; we created a separate screencast with that student narrating as he "looked at" different websites and talking as he tried to figure out which were trustworthy. We created a humorous faux website for the doctor in one of the videos, complete with a working phone number and voice mail message. One of the students wrote and performed a song about whooping cough in a video, which tied into part of another episode. The characters all had accounts on the T2X social network, and posted updates that other characters and teen participants commented on.

T2X Website

Were you able to judge success?

The final evaluation of the T2X program, which will link use of the site and engagement with the transmedia series with actual healthcare utilization, is not yet complete. However, we do have some preliminary results based on some pre-post surveys linked to the Club content. We found that for the T2X members that engaged with the transmedia series, there was a 37% increase in health care literacy knowledge and 23% increase in intention to make a positive health change.

Do you have a favorite campaign? (It doesn't have to be one of yours.)

One of my favorite examples of transmedia storytelling is the non-profit Invisible People (of which I am a board member). Mark Horvath, its founder, has single-handedly made a bigger difference in the issue of homelessness than many large organizations, simply by telling his own ongoing story and helping people who are homeless tell their stories through social media -- in online videos, on Twitter and Facebook, via blogs, and on other sites. From a budget of essentially zero, Mark has inspired real change through the power of transmedia stories and attracted sponsors and extensive media coverage.

I also love what the Harry Potter Alliance is doing to extend the Harry Potter storyworld into the real world by harnessing the energy of fans to fight for social justice using analogies to events in the books. Its Deathly Hallows campaign took on seven real-world "horcruxes" to destroy, including child slavery, bullying, depression and more. Through its Imagine Better initiative, the HPA is now reaching out to other fandoms for social activism, starting with its Hunger is Not a Game campaign.

What brought you into this line of work?

My background is in public health, and I've been working in the field of social marketing to create health and social change for about 20 years. Though communications are just one piece of a comprehensive social marketing approach, I've seen the power of the media to influence knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, and I believe stories are a powerful tool. As part of my work with the Entertainment Industries Council, we're partnering with the entertainment and news media to influence attitudes toward people with mental illness, and the research we're doing just reinforces how critical this piece of the puzzle is for creating lasting social change.

Would you know of anyone else who is using storytelling in a unique way?

There are many exciting projects going on right now that center on transmedia storytelling. Lina Srivastava, who coined the phrase "transmedia activism," is doing some interesting work. The Tribeca Film Institute has been funding innovative transmedia documentaries and hosting related events. Many more fascinating people and projects are sharing what they're doing in a Facebook group I founded called the Transmedia for Good Network, which everyone is invited to join.

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Weinreich Communications 2006-13