Using Storytelling to Promote Public Health: A Webinar on Why it Works and How to Do It

Binge watching, Tik Tok challenges and the bittersweet torment of Wordle—these days we live in a world of constant distractions. Finding a way to get someone’s attention, and keep it, can seem like an impossible feat. So how can organizations break through the noise to promote public health?

As part of the Partnering for Vaccine Equity program, the CDC Foundation and the Urban Institute recently addressed this challenge with What’s Your Story? Creating Narratives to Support Public Health—a webinar exploring how storytelling can be used for effective public health communication.

The event kicked off with a presentation by Zoanne Clack, MD, an emergency medicine physician and current medical advisor, writer and executive producer on the popular ABC television series Grey’s Anatomy—the longest-running medical drama on primetime television.

While Grey’s Anatomy has always featured stories of interpersonal drama, the show also explores real-world medical science and public health issues.

“On Grey's what we write is fiction, but what we tell is truth,” Dr. Clack explained. “We are very thoughtful about how we tell our stories since we realize that a lot of people are getting at least some of their medical information and knowledge from television.”

Dr. Clack talked about how essential it is to connect with audiences in an authentic and emotional way in order to create a message that resonates. “For public health, this is very important,” Dr. Clack said. “We don't want to just sit and give them facts.”

Instead, she advocates allowing the audience to learn information organically through the experiences of the characters.

“Storytelling is taking the truth of the world, and wrapping it into an emotional, honest experience that the audience can relate to,” Dr. Clack said.

Webinar presenter Erica Rosenthal, PhD, from the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California oversees the Center’s extensive research on the impact of media narratives on health and social issues. Dr. Rosenthal noted that emotionally compelling stories do not just entertain—they can also inform and change an audience’s perceptions.

“Stories overcome the resistance or pushback that we tend to experience to more overt persuasive messages,” Dr. Rosenthal said. “As a result, stories can fly under the radar and influence us, even without our conscious awareness.”

The webinar also featured speakers who have successfully used storytelling to drive innovative public health campaigns.

Alex Fajardo, executive director of El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center in Southern California, shared images and video from El Sol’s vaccine education campaign. It centers around a fictional public health superhero known as Captain Empath (Capitan Compasion in Spanish) who is battling the COVID-19 pandemic and advocating for vaccination. The campaign includes activity books, a comic strip and a play that El Sol’s community health workers perform at local schools.

“Instead of flooding you with a lot of information, we created little stories,” Fajardo said. “It was a powerful opportunity to change how to reach the community.”

We also heard from Jorge Perez, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, who shared a video the organization produced in partnership with Cincinnati’s Black Nurse Practitioner Network. The video, one of a series, features a nurse practitioner surrounded by her family as they candidly discuss their fears and concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines and why they decided to get vaccinated.

“We actually specifically asked that we do the video in her living room at her home because we felt like her message would communicate so much more if you saw the rest of her family around her,” Perez said.

Over the course of the webinar, the panel covered storytelling fundamentals, challenges and tips for effective public health messaging. A full recording of the event can be accessed here.

Trust me, Wordle can wait (at least ‘til later).

Federal funding for this project is supported through cooperative agreement 1 NH23IP922652-01-00 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) totaling $25,660,048 with 100 percent funding from CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government

Ruth O'Neill headshot
Ruth O’Neill is a senior communications officer for the CDC Foundation’s department of infectious disease programs.