The gist of a story can often be more memorable than the precision of a fact.
It’s for this reason that we memorize facts and figures –we make an active effort to remember– but we rarely speak of memorizing stories. In health-related communications, stories are often more easily repeated, and can have a longer life and a more lasting effect.
So non-profits, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations –whether in health or not–, profitably build stories into any appeal for funding or any effort to raise awareness of the organizations and/or their causes.
It’s more likely that these stories, and not the facts, are what get repeated in the office, across the dinner table, or talking with friends. Why? Because even though there are no such things as alternative facts, there are alternative and mutable stories. And for the stories, it’s perfectly alright if they aren’t repeated precisely as originally written or told. Their impact derives from getting and communicating the essence of the story, not the exact wording.
Here’s an example: A few years ago, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria produced a four-page brochure about their work fighting multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Indonesia.[ 1 ] Here it is in thumbnail form; you can see it full-size here.
I’ve highlighted in yellow every fact; numbers, dates, names of treatment protocols, etc. As you can see (and as I calculated) those facts represent roughly a third of the entire text. That’s a lot to remember –and a lot to mis-remember and get wrong, too. And as these kinds of brochures go, this one is actually on the lighter side factually.
So then, here’s the test; which of these will you remember and which will you repeat to others? The story:
In Indonesia, a 15 year-old girl named Ambiya and her mother have patiently taken an hour-long bus ride every day to treat the girl’s TB. Initially diagnosed with “standard” TB, she was started on treatment, which involves six months of daily medication. But the treatment failed, as did a second course of treatment. It was only then that it was discovered that Ambiya had an increasingly common form of multidrug-resistant TB. So for the past 18 months, Ambiya has ridden the bus to Persahabatan Hospital every day – almost 550 times – to swallow the 6,000 or so pills needed to cure her multidrug-resistant TB. Treatment for this form of TB can run as long as two years and be as much as 200 times more expensive. To date, Indonesia has been approved for four grants to fight TB, totaling US$ 230 million. With the Global Fund’s help, TB diagnosis and treatment has now been expanded to cover the entire country. And Ambiya’s treatment will soon come to a successful end.
Or the facts:
In Indonesia, with a population of 242 million people, the prevalence of TB is 280 per 100,000 and the TB mortality rate is 27 per 100,000. Indonesia, the fourth-largest country in the world in terms of population, is ranked fifth highest of the 22 countries considered to be “high burden” by the World Health Organization (WHO), with an estimated 450,000 new cases of TB per year. Of these, approximately 2 percent of new cases and 12 percent of recurring cases are the multidrug-resistant strain. Estimates suggest that the overall TB mortality rate has dropped by close to 50 percent as compared in 1990. Standard TB involves six months of daily treatment; that time increases to as much as two years in instances of the multidrug-resistant strain. Indonesia has been approved for four grants to fight TB, totaling $US 230 million.
Of course it’s the story. But even if you or another reader forget the girl’s name, the country, the number of pills, the length of the bus ride, the course of the treatment –all of that–, that would be okay, because the essence of the story is simply this:
The Global Fund is curing a form of TB that is increasingly prevalent and notoriously difficult to treat.
Finally, for print work like this brochure, the story should be as accessible as possible. Tell it in pull-quotes, in larger-font introductory paragraphs, and encapsulate it in captions to photographs.
When you make a story easier to remember, you’ve also make it harder to forget.
[ 1 ] The brochure was designed and produced by the exceptionally talented creative staff at Crabtree + Company, my former employer. You can learn more about them here: www.crabtreecompany.com
You can see a video of Ambiya, narrated by the photographer, John Rae, here:
Rae is a remarkable photographer. His work for non-profits often calls on him to photograph people in poverty, in pain, or in circumstances most of us can barely imagine, and yet he is able to capture their dignity and their essential humanity without being intrusive or moralistic. What he shows is that at their core, these people are really just like us, and that connection is precisely what these NGO’s are seeking to make.