Chapter 3: Tell Stories

Photo from NASA.

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

Experts have noted that communication on displacement sometimes overstates a causal relationship between climate change and mobility. In documenting 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), notes that, “in 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.”

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.”

Avoid oversimplified narratives of why people move. Include the multiple interlocking factors that drive movement, and the multiple paths that appear after people relocate. 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 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 the complex reasons people move? Science tells us that storytelling is the best 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 of displacement (Christiano, Neimand, Sheehan, 2018).

Stories that follow the narrative arc gain the cognitive and psychological benefits of storytelling.

The narrative arc includes a beginning, middle and end. The middle includes the climax — a moment of profound uncertainty in which the fate of central characters is uncertain.

Stories are built around powerful and affective characters and visual settings.

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. Create opportunities for those experiencing the story to step into the world of the characters, see the world from their perspectives, and watch as they make decisions and grapple with their challenges.

The hero of the story should represent what you want your audience to support — whether a programme, 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 to which your audience can connect. 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 your readers 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, programme or solution is what must be done.

Alex Randell did this well in an article 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 strike 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 repeatedly tell to build understanding and support for international cooperation 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:

Data and storytelling

If you’re attempting to communicate complex issues it’s tempting to lead with data to inform and mobilize a community. However, research suggests that leading with numbers as a way to engage people just doesn’t work. Leading your message with big numbers can leave the people you’re trying to move to action feeling overwhelmed. Instead of enlisting people to work toward solutions, they’re more likely to disengage because they feel like they will not be able to make a difference on the issue (Slovic et al., 2013).

Large numbers fail to convey the significance of mass atrocities and devastation in ways that inspire empathy and action. As social psychologist Paul Slovic (2010) wrote, “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 the scope of a situation. But stories paint a picture of what the data tells us and convey urgency and nuance.

Instead of leading with data points, lead with a story that illustrates the data point (Niederdeppe, Roh, and Dreisbach, 2016; Zebregs et al.,2015). If you don’t not lead with a story that gives context for data, you leave space for your audience to insert their assumptions about 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). Stories allow you to include details that help people understand why a data point is meaningful..

Alex Randall said 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, and civil society. He said that half the room responds 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 understand why climate change and disasters put vulnerable people at even greater risk, tell stories that confront the narrative people hold in their minds about collective responsibility. Telling stories will lower their 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.

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