Communication professionals are often tasked with deciding the most effective approach to inform the public about their clients’ organizations, products, projects, legislation, or political candidates. Recently a measles outbreak was the proving ground to demonstrate that storytelling is more effective than simply sharing the facts when you seek to change attitudes. For seasoned communication veterans, this finding is not a surprise – but in this day of big data when C-Suites seek to have a metric attached to every action plan, communicators may find themselves having to make the case for storytelling – so here’s one to share.
Researchers at the the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and University of California Los Angeles were concerned about the prevalence of anti-vaccine attitudes among parents, even wealthy parents (as reported in the American Journal of Public Health). They feared fewer vaccinated children would likely lead to a re-emergence of dangerous childhood diseases, such as measles and mumps. One of the most visible incidents of this re-emergence was the 2015 measles outbreak linked to Disneyland attendance.
The researchers wanted to know why the pro-vaccine messages by doctors and health organizations had not been effective. They devised a study that measured attitudes about vaccinations, and then designed three interventions to measure changes in those attitudes. The interventions included: 1) sharing fact-based pro-vaccine research; 2) sharing a written story from a mom who spoke about when her child had measles along with some photos of the infected child and pro-vaccine messages; and 3) the control group read an unrelated article.
The study found attitude change (toward a pro-vaccine stance) was greatest among the group of participants who read the mother’s story and saw photos of the infected child. The researchers concluded, “Our results suggest that parents are likely to be responsive to warnings (in the form of graphic pictures and anecdotes) of the severity of these diseases, and that heightened awareness of the risks associated with failure to take preventive action will improve attitudes toward vaccinations.”
This study offers quantitative proof of what many professional communicators have known all along that graphic pictures and anecdotes, in other words, stories–both visual and text-based–have the power to change attitudes. But of course, you’ll still have to convince the client who wants to share a full page of statistics to prove the effectiveness of their ___________ (fill in the blank…organization, program, product, candidate). In that situation, I encourage you to consider sharing this story: There was once a study on how to change parents’ attitudes about vaccines…