Recently, I had the great pleasure of spending a few days with Martha Swai, one of the primary architects of an influential (and now world-renowned) radio soap opera in Tanzania.
In the early 1990s, Martha and her colleagues developed a serial drama called Twende Na Wakati (“Let’s Go With the Times”), which blended first-rate entertainment with carefully crafted public health messages. The result of her efforts was that millions of listeners adopted safer sexual practices to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Further, Martha’s efforts elevated the status of women in Tanzania and promoted planned childbearing to curb cycles of poverty.
Before you get caught up in the remarkable pubic health implications of these broadcasts, think about how Martha worked her magic: she changed the behavior of an entire nation by telling vivid stories.
Does storytelling strike you as a soft skill? Something for the PR department or for social evenings around a campfire? Daniel Pink doesn’t think so. In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink characterizes a mastery of story as a critical individual skill and organizational competency. And if you’ve read Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, you’ll know that influencers are master storytellers, which leads us back to Martha.
Rather than broadcasting lectures or logical arguments, Martha told stories. She and her writing team invented believable characters and plot lines that resonated with their listeners. They followed the exploits of a philandering truck driver who, much to his surprise and the surprise of the listeners, contracted HIV/AIDS and eventually died. They gradually revealed how his reckless and often abusive behavior negatively affected his family members and acquaintances.
One of the reasons that storytelling is so powerful is that it honors the listener’s intellect, which creates a participatory relationship wherein the listener begins to own the parts of the story filled in by his or her imagination. A good story invites the listener to personally discover the connection between actions and consequences. A good story invites the listener to scrutinize information, make guesses, and imagine outcomes. A good story triggers empathy and emotions.
Next time you’d like to influence the behavior of an individual or group, remember Martha Swai and the power of a vivid story.
Note: At our REACH conference this year, VitalSmarts recognized Martha with the 2013 Albert Bandura Influencer Award for her exceptional public health efforts. Click here to learn more about this prestigious award.