Nov. 01 2019

Tell Me a Story

In this age of YouTube and Netflix, knowing how to engage an audience using a personal narrative and a well-crafted video is an important new skill for public health experts.

Columbia Mailman School students are experts in analyzing data and reporting the results with the dispassionate voice of scientific authority. Now, a workshop in digital storytelling at the Lerner Center for Health Promotion is teaching them to tell visually rich personal stories. “Science and scientific writing are central to public health. So too is the ability to connect with an audience on an emotional level,” says Gina Wingood, MPH, ScD, a professor of Sociomedical Sciences and director of the Lerner Center. “Facts matter, but in the world of public health advocacy, one of the most powerful ways to motivate people to be healthy is through stories that are supported by facts.”

In the spring, facilitators with StoryCenter, a Berkeley, CA, non- profit organization, began the two- day workshop by giving students a series of writing prompts. They were asked to think about “The Fork in the Road” (a decisive moment in their life); “The Stand” (a time they stood up for themselves or others); and “The Scar” (a visible or invisible reminder of a transformative experience). As the group met to share first drafts and solicit feedback, facilitator Robert Kershaw encouraged the students to express a personal point of view grounded in concrete details of time and place. “Less helicopter. Land on the street. That’s where the story starts,” he said.

The following day the group further refined their stories, then brought them to life using an online tool called WeVideo to create short videos that combine still and video images, music, and other sounds with a spoken narration. The completed videos show the many different ways students harnessed their creativity and opened up about their personal lives.

A video by Julia Herskovic, MPH ’19, starts with a close-up of a purple sticky note she carries in her wallet. Its friendly message, written by a teenager she met while working in an after-school health education program, gives her encouragement whenever she is stressed or feels like she doesn’t belong. In his story, Ben Lane, MPH ’20, immerses us in the sights and sounds of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the height of the media frenzy around the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa; working there during the crisis sparked in him a renewed sense of purpose. Through a montage of childhood photos, Carthi Mannikarottu, MPH ’19, evokes the physical and social discomfort of growing up with an uncomfortable skin condition. Like most of the workshop participants, Mannikarottu found that the storytelling process took her into uncharted territory. “I’m so used to writing essays with seven sources per paragraph,” she says. “But I was very happy for the chance to tell my story.”

Just two weeks after completing the workshop, Staci Carney, MPH ’19, was fast at work on another video using the skills she had acquired in the workshop. As part of a research team testing a targeted communications campaign, she collaborated with a woman in Washington Heights to tell the woman’s story of living with diabetes and depression. That video will be used to inspire similar individuals to connect with local social services and will eventually find a permanent home on the Columbia Mailman–affiliated neighborhood portal GetHealthyHeights.org. “The workshop was one of the most rewarding things I did here,” says Carney. “It was really cool to take what I learned and apply it in the real world right away.”


Tim Paul is editorial director of communications and editor of the Transmission newsletter. He wrote about the connection between climate and flu rates for this magazine in 2017.