Tell an Influential Story

Tell an Influential Story

Category : PROspective

I recently submitted a grant application that proposed to develop a molecular profile to predict which breast cancers have high risk of recurring ten or more years after diagnosis. Here is the first paragraph of the application:


Imagine a 45 year-old premenopausal woman diagnosed with stage I, estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. She, along with her partner and children, will face a year of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, fear, and disruption of their day-to-day life. She completes her treatments and endocrine therapy, and recovers. She and her family are immensely grateful, and although those years remain a part of the family fabric, the fears diminish with time. Now imagine this same woman 20 years later. She is excited about life following retirement, especially the prospect of spending time with grandchildren, but her breast cancer recurs and these things will never come to pass. Her physicians tell her she did everything right, that there was no way to know that the tumor might recur so long after diagnosis, that it was just bad luck, and that even in 2020, no one can predict which breast cancers have this malevolent potential and which do not.


I am an epidemiologist proposing an epidemiology research project, so why did I start with a story about a single person?

Because it works.


I want the grant reviewers to feel empathy and sympathy for this woman and her family, and to read the grant in the frame of mind of wanting to help. To be influential, one must change minds. To change minds, those minds must be open to change. Data and evidence do not open minds; emotions open minds. Telling a poignant story about one person that illustrates the nature of the problem will open minds, and then these open minds might be receptive to the data and statistics.


We see this strategy of opening minds used frequently in public spaces. Politicians tell stories about people they meet on the campaign trail, and then they tell us the statistics that demonstrate the broader need and their policies for how to address them. News stories highlight the plight of a single person as a vehicle to convey the story. Presidents bring people to their State of the Union addresses and ask them to be recognized before launching into the statistics that describe the bigger problem and how the administration will address them. Religious texts are full of parables that faith leaders use to introduce a larger message. Why does everyone use this technique? Because it works. Once you recognize the method, you will see it used wherever you look.


And now that your mind may be open to the idea, here’s some science to back it up. In her book “The Influential Mind,” neuroscientist Tali Sharot says that evidence tends to be persuasive when it fits your world view. But if you are trying to change minds, then you are inevitably communicating with others who have a different world view. On average, when we encounter evidence that is inconsistent with our world view, we interpret that evidence as wrong. The further away the new evidence is from preexisting beliefs, the less likely it is to alter them. To be influential, you must first address and influence the emotional state of the audience (which can be one or many people). Helping them to get into the right frame of mind will improve your chances of changing their mind with evidence.


Our students are adept at collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, with the goal of changing policies in ways that will improve public health. To be truly influential, though, we must all be prepared for resistance. Inherent in the idea of changing policies is the idea that we will have to change minds that are resistant. Using tools like the ones above to open those minds is as important a skill as the research skills.


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