The Power of Storytelling: Unlocking Energy for Change

Listening — that’s what I’m here to do at SwitchPoint, IntraHealth International’s annual “unconference” hosted in rustic Saxapahaw, nestled along the Haw River in an arrestingly green North Carolina wood.

Listening is what we’re aiming for in our most recent undertaking with Medtronic Foundation, too. A few months ago, IntraHealth International and Medtronic Foundation recruited a handful of health workers from projects and locations across the globe to participate in a few months of intensive storytelling training — admittedly, a bit of an experimental undertaking. Why storytelling, of all things?

While conferences and reports are rife with technical experts and statistics, sometimes these discussions lack the critical element of voice — the humanity behind the numbers.

Simply put, storytelling in advocacy is about improving feedback loops. It’s about ensuring that dire needs and specific proposals are communicated effectively and persuasively to people who make influential policy and financial decisions. While conferences and reports are rife with technical experts and statistics, sometimes these discussions lack the critical element of voice — the humanity behind the numbers.

This dearth often frustrated me in quantitative research; the statistics we collect simply can’t manage to convey all the the complexity that exists beyond the page or computer screen. I’m a huge proponent of harnessing data for decision-making (as are IntraHealth and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition). But for messages to be communicated more effectively — meaning they are absorbed, understood, and acted upon — audiences need a fuller picture. Data provides the skeleton to an argument, but human experience fleshes it out to form a whole with which you can empathize.

It’s precisely this notion that drove IntraHealth and Medtronic’s collaboration to enrich dense policy dialogues with real, frontline perspectives. Specifically, we wanted to equip frontline health workers with the skills to present their experiences as a form of advocacy for improved health workforce conditions, at venues like SwitchPoint and beyond.

…figures can be so daunting as to be virtually incomprehensible — what does a shortage of 18 million health workers really look like?

It’s striking to say that 400 million people around the world lack access to essential health services, or that the world will be short 18 million health workers by 2030. But these figures can be so daunting as to be virtually incomprehensible — what does a shortage of 18 million health workers really look like? Giving a face and personal story to these statistics breathes life and import into them.

Maria Valenzuela did just that at a Congressional briefing we organized in March. Experts from multilateral organizations began by presenting the facts of the global health workforce shortage. But it was only when Maria, a community health worker from Phoenix, Arizona, presented her personal narrative that the audience was moved to tears. I was so captivated myself that I almost forgot to scan the crowd; when I did, I noticed that her story of a tumultuous childhood and a passionate community service career had utterly enthralled the room of nearly 70 people — congressional staffers, health professionals, students and fellows, government officials, researchers, and more.

When you’re prompted to make a connection through a compelling story, it sticks. You care. And ideally, when you pair this with an assessment of the facts, you’re moved to action.

Maria’s story was the subject of audience comments amid lingering exchanges over empty breakfast plates. People could relate to the humanity in her tale — they could imagine themselves as the young child bouncing helplessly from foster home to foster home, or their own daughter who received community nutrition classes and was inspired to become a social worker rather than succumb to negative influences around her. When you’re prompted to make a connection through a compelling story, it sticks. You care. And ideally, when you pair this with an assessment of the facts, you’re moved to action.

Storytelling ultimately comes down to fostering empathy and establishing trust. Wouldn’t global health as an enterprise be immensely better served with a bigger dose of both of those qualities?

Yesterday at SwitchPoint, Albert Medina presented a moving tale of his 12-year career as a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department. Over time he learned about the fatal consequences of the widespread lack of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training among the community, and now he’s in conversation with his local alderman to institutionalize grassroots CPR training for community members.

Likewise, Vânia Soares de Oliveira e Almeida Pinto spoke of the importance of her patients’ backgrounds and hopes in their decisions to seek care. She now wants to incorporate storytelling techniques into training for medical students as well as patient therapy groups, because the trust to share stories and the willingness to listen to them would strengthen both the provider-patient relationship and the quality of services.

The health workers lead a micro-lab session on storytelling at IntraHealth International’s annual SwitchPoint conference.

Moments like these here at SwitchPoint remind us just how powerful individuals, and their individual stories, can be. So today, the final day of SwitchPoint, we’re excited. We’re excited that these health workers feel empowered to utilize their stories to influence change in their hometown, their state, their country, and their world.

The project wasn’t meant to “give them a voice;” we’d be remiss to conclude they ever lacked voices in the first place. Rather, we wanted to provide them guidance on how to structure and present their personal stories to drive change. We wanted to seed their confidence to do so proactively, however they see fit according to their community’s needs and their own expertise. While their testimonies at SwitchPoint may be the culmination of this project, their persisting place within local policy dialogues is the real gem of this undertaking.

As for Maria, the rockstar speaker at our Congressional briefing in March and on the SwitchPoint stage yesterday, she’ll soon be meeting with her Congresswoman’s office to further discuss her role as a community health worker and trusted conduit of community feedback. Maria had met with her representative’s office in Washington during her visit in March, after which the staff followed up with her directly, eager to engage with her in Phoenix to discuss ways to improve healthcare in the city’s varied communities. I suspect they sought to reconnect with Maria because they saw the authenticity in her eyes when she spoke her story. They heard the passion in her voice when she described her job and her mission. They believed her years of accumulated community experience when she decried the gaps in service provision that still remain. That’s the incredible power of storytelling.

And that’s why I’m here at SwitchPoint — to listen to and absorb the plethora of insights from the frontline experts around me. We’d all be wise, and humbled, to do the same.


Michelle Korte is a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow at IntraHealth International. This post originally appeared on the blog of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, an alliance of organizations advocating for greater and more strategic U.S. investment in frontline health workers as a cost-effective way to save lives and promote peace and security.

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