• Barbara Mayfield, MS, RD, LD, FAND

Why do nutrition professionals need to tell stories? What makes a good story?

Updated: 4 days ago


A mug of coffee and a pen next to a napkin with words about storytelling

Stories are more than “once upon a time” fairytales, picture books, or suspense thrillers. Stories are a memorable and moving way to communicate ideas.


As nutrition and health professionals, we have life-changing information to share and are trained to be accurate and credible in our transmission of knowledge. However, we’re not always listened to. We could be more effective if we learned how to creatively craft and tell compelling stories.


Let’s explore why we need to tell stories and what makes a good story.


Why do nutrition professionals need to tell stories?

Communication is only effective when an audience attends to our message, remembers it, and takes the appropriate action. A proven form of communication that is often underutilized by professionals and scientists is storytelling. In fact, it may purposely be avoided as unprofessional.


It’s time to rethink that position… the evidence is in support of story.


Storytelling is a universal form of communication. All cultures throughout history have communicated via story. Storytelling can be enhanced with technology but doesn’t need it. All it takes is a storyteller and an audience.


Storytelling commands our attention. The human brain pays more attention to stories than to facts. Research using imaging shows how much more our brains “light up” in response to a story than to dry information. We are drawn in by relatable characters and a meaningful plot, rooting for the hero to succeed.


Stories are memorable. We remember stories better than facts. Why? Because stories evoke emotion, and the associated feelings help us remember the content of the story along with how the story made us feel.


Stories prompt empathy with others, helping us form bonds of mutual respect. Research has shown us that a compelling story leads to the release of oxytocin, which increases feelings of trust, compassion, and a desire to take action. What more could we want?


What makes a good story?

A good story has three main elements – characters, a situation to overcome, and a solution that leads to a desirable outcome. When each of these elements is creatively and strategically designed and delivered, the story can successfully achieve its goal – which may be to inform, entertain, motivate, or more.


Stories are about people.

Characters include:

  • the main character, who ideally your audience can identify with (think Harry Potter),

  • one or more characters that illustrate various people who either make the struggle worse or better (think Voldemort and Hermione),

  • and one or more wise and helpful characters that serve to guide, mentor, coach, or in some way lead the main character to successfully reach their destiny (think Professor Dumbledore).

When we use storytelling with our audiences, we will be most effective when we use a real character (with permission) or a composite character from our audience. The audience is a great source for additional character types to include that help or hinder their progress. You, or what you offer, can be the guide or the solution that leads the character to their desired outcome.


Stories are about struggle.

Every good story needs a situation an audience can relate to. Most story plots involve a problem to overcome or some type of conflict. The plot of the story describes how the situation can become worse or better and serves to illustrate factors that impact similar situations the audience faces.


The more we understand our audience’s struggles, the better we can craft a story that speaks to their needs. Ask your audience what problems they would like help dealing with and what gets in the way of their success. How does the struggle make them feel? Include what you learn in the story.


Stories are about taking action to achieve success.

When the main character meets their guide and develops a plan of action, they are equipped to avoid failure and achieve success. This is the part of the story that can inform your audience of the steps they can take to overcome or prevent a problem.


As you craft this element of the story, find out what your audience’s goals and ambitions are regarding what they would like to become or do. Find out what they fear will happen if they don’t succeed.


When crafting a story, think of your audience as a co-author. Because when a story is about the audience, the audience responds with their attention, involvement, memory, and action.


“Good stories surprise us. They make us think and feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint crammed with bar graphs never can.” ~ Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow, The Storytelling Edge


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