Chapter 3: Tell Stories

UNHCR Innovation Service
Mar 27 · 9 min read
Photo from NASA.

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D., Ann Christiano, and Lauren Parater

Experts have noted that communication on displacement in the context of climate change (why people leave and what happens once they are in a new location) sometimes overstate a causal relationship between climate change and mobility. In a document that outlines the history and evolution of discussions on climate change and human mobility, Erica Bower, former Associate Climate Change Officer at UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), explains “early publications, the relationship between climate impacts and human mobility was discussed in one way: a direct causal relationship, where massive environmental and climatic changes will directly induce massive population displacements.”

Similarly, in a report on how the news media covered Syria and climate change, Alex Randall, project manager of the Climate Change and Migration Coalition, writes “Media reporting represents a simplified, but not wholly inaccurate representation of the evidence linking climate, drought and human movement.”

Those who communicate on this issue need to be careful not to produce oversimplified narratives for why people move, and instead include the multiple interlocking factors that drive movement, as well as the multiple paths that appear after people move to a new location. Some communities are able to return to their homes, some are not. And in some cases, mobility is cyclical, with people moving multiple times, whether that is because they are forced to because they can no longer safely live in their community, or they must leave in the dry season to pursue work.

Illustration by Ailadi.

How do we overcome the oversimplification of complex reasons people move? Science tells us that storytelling is the greatest tool we have for building understanding of and engagement with complex issues.

By building stories with intention, we can identify characters, emotions and contexts that will help our community understand and care about the challenges, barriers and nuances in displacement (Christiano, Neimand, Sheehan, 2018).

Stories must follow the narrative arc to gain the cognitive and psychological benefits of storytelling. Stories include characters and settings, a beginning, middle and end, and conflict and resolution. A quote, vignette or message is not a story. In stories about complex issues, situational factors — like a flood, drought, political turmoil, ethnic conflict — should be the setting of the story. We should step into the world of the characters, experience the world from their perspectives, and watch as they make decisions and grapple with a particular challenge.

The hero of the story should be the thing you want your audience to support — whether that is a program, policy or refugee-driven innovation. The villain should be situational and systemic factors — such as policy or institutional barriers — to overcome. Include authentic and non-stereotypical characters that break expectations and that your audience can connect to. Include different plot structures, surprising twists and unexpected turns to keep their attention. And importantly, when conveying the moral of the story or the solution you want them to support, give them 2 + 2, not 4. In other words, let them do the work of putting the pieces together and come to the conclusion that your policy, program or solution is what must be done.

Alex Randell did this well in his piece for Le Monde Diplomatique titled Stateless, and At Risk for Weather. In his opening, he writes:

Abu Siddique will be counted twice in this year’s refugee statistics. He’ll be counted once for fleeing Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh. And a second time for moving to escape the monsoon flooding that followed.

That probably won’t be the last time he gets added to the statistics. He explained his situation to the UN Refugee Agency: ‘We are moving because during the monsoon the water rises very high here. Water rises to our necks when it rains.’ The Refugee Agency is helping some families in this situation move to a new camp. Others will have to fend for themselves. Once Siddique has moved, he’ll be living with his family in a temporary shelter, perhaps safe from monsoon flooding but vulnerable to a cyclone strikes on Bangladesh’s exposed coastline. Almost anyone would want to move on somewhere safer, and to somewhere with more prospects for work and settlement.’

Types of stories to tell

What stories should you begin to tell over and over again to build understanding and support for international co-operation and global action in the face of climate change? We suggest capturing a set of true stories that can be used in different situations. Peg Neuhauser, in her brilliant book “Corporate Legends and Lore” describes a core group of stories that any organization or cause should be able to tell about their work. They include:

  1. Origin story: This story should help us understand why you think about protection in this way. Include how you came to see climate change as a risk multiplier in this work. Were you in the field and witnessed it? Did you connect to a family or individual who changed your thinking? Featuring you as the protagonist might help communities similar to you connect to your work.
  2. What will be different?: How will protection be better, more agile, flexible and effective if your target community adopts an intersectional and holistic approach to protection? A recent story on NPR described a group of futurists who told stories about how the problems leading to climate change were solved as a way of shrinking the distance between challenges and solutions.
  3. What we learned in defeat: The best stories are those that are authentic. Being vulnerable about failure is one way to build authenticity and help your audience connect to a story (we are all human after all). Tell a story of a co-worker or humanitarian that was not able to do their work well because they did not take this approach to protection. Share stories that show how a climate-blind approach may lead to failure.
  4. How we succeeded: Share stories that inspire pride, awe and joy in your community by sharing stories of how co-workers, humanitarians, or displaced people have had success by approaching protection and solutions from this perspective. Not every success has to be huge and transformative. You might share stories of how people within an organization made a change to how they approach their work to account for climate change, and how their efforts to protect refugees and other displaced people are now much more effective.
  5. Our people: Include stories of the people on your team or in the sector doing this work so your target community has a deeper understanding of what this work looks like and who is doing it. Sometimes new ways of doing work can seem hard and even threatening. And if we aren’t explicit about what that looks like, people will fill in the blanks with their assumptions. If they are skeptical or have a negative feeling about the approach, they will assume extreme and harmful changes that may cost them their job or threaten how they do their work. Sharing stories of people adopting this approach to their work and what that actually looks like in practice will help fill the gaps for your audience. Is there a data scientist thinking differently about her work because she takes this approach? Is there a protection officer who had success because he adopted this approach for a particular project? Tell their stories.

Data and storytelling

When we’re attempting to communicate complex issues we might think that we need to lead with data to inform and mobilize a community. However, research suggests that leading with numbers is not effective. Numbers leave audiences overwhelmed which may lead people to disengage because they feel like they will not be able to make a difference on the issue (Slovic et al., 2013).

Large numbers are not effective at conveying the meaning of mass atrocities and devastations in ways that inspire empathy and action. As social psychologist Paul Slovic (2010) writes, “Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics, ‘human beings with the tears dried off,’ that lack feeling and fail to motivate action.”

Data is important for building a comprehensive understanding of a particular situation. But, when communicating about climate change as a critical and interlocking factor in human mobility, it will be important to use stories that paint a picture of what the data tells us to convey urgency and nuance.

Research suggests that rather than leading with data points, lead with a story that illustrates the data point (Niederdeppe, Roh, and Dreisbach, 2016; Zebregs et al.,2015). If we do not lead with a story that provides context for data, we leave space for our audience to insert their assumptions as to what the data means. If audiences hold biases or inaccurate beliefs about the issue, they will likely interpret the data to reflect their beliefs (Hetey and Eberhardt, 2018). Instead, story allows us to include details that build understanding of the “why” around a particular number.

In an interview Alex Randall, told us that when he leads Climate and Migration Coalition workshops for people working on climate change issues, he uses a mix of stories and diagrams. Much like institutions working at the nexus of climate change displacement, his participants come from the development and humanitarian sectors, academia, governments, civil society, among others. He notes that half the room responds best to stories and the other to illustrative diagrams. He says both play an important role in helping workshop participants understand and care about the issue. However, he notes that stories that illustrate the intersecting nature of climate change and disaster are critical. Participants understand the issue from a theoretical perspective, but stories help anchor it in reality. Stories provide anecdotal evidence participants can connect with and return to. Coupling diagrams with stories provides the evidence needed for those who prefer diagrams, but illustrates the complexity of the issue for those who do not connect to graphs and charts.

To help people see climate change and disasters as risk multipliers, tell stories that change the narrative people hold in their minds about protection. Telling stories will lower people’s inclination to counter argue, capture their attention and help them understand and care about this approach to protection as much as you do.

For a more detailed dive into these recommendations read The Science of Story Building and How to Tell Stories About Complex Issues. You can also watch a free webinar on this topic here.

This special publication is part of a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida Center for Public Interest Communications. In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, this partnership aims to connect those working in the humanitarian sector with applicable insights from behavioral, cognitive and social science to make a lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

Thank you to Alex Randall, Erica Bower and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat for their time and insight for this project.

This special report shares how we can apply behavioral, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for complex issues. We focused on climate change displacement as it is one of the critical and most complex areas of work facing the humanitarian sector — and the entire global community. The special report is divided into five chapters:

Introduction: Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Chapter One: Make Room for the Most Affected

Chapter Two: Use Visual Language

Chapter Three: Tell Stories

Chapter Four: Use Emotion with Intention

Chapter Five: Step into the World of Your Community


Christiano, A., Neimand, A., & Sheehan, M. (2018). Science of Story Building — Medium. Retrieved from

Hetey, R. C., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2018). The numbers don’t speak for themselves: Racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 183–187.

Niederdeppe, J., Roh, S., & Dreisbach, C. (2016). How narrative focus and a statistical map shape health policy support among state legislators. Health communication, 31(2), 242–255.

Slovic, P. (2010). If i look at the mass i will never act: Psychic numbing and genocide. In Emotions and risky technologies (pp. 37–59). Springer, Dordrecht.

Slovic, P., Zionts, D., Woods, A. K., Goodman, R., & Jinks, D. (2013). Psychic numbing and mass atrocity. The behavioral foundations of public policy, 126–142.

Zebregs, S., van den Putte, B., Neijens, P., & de Graaf, A. (2015). The differential impact of statistical and narrative evidence on beliefs, attitude, and intention: A meta-analysis. Health communication, 30(3), 282–289.

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade