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Stories that Change Behavior

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Storytelling Workshop with Dr. William Smith

Dr. William Smith at "Telling Stories to Fight STIs and HIV/AIDS"

Heard any good stories about HIV or STIs lately? Told any? What makes a good story?

Dr. William Smith, Editor of Social Marketing Quarterly, asked about 20 invited participants at a May 18, 2012 workshop, “Telling Stories to Fight STIs and HIV/AIDS,” to consider the elements of a good story and then use them to create one.

Sponsored by the AIDS Institute of the New York State Department of Health, the workshop for HIV and STI service providers and AI staff was another in the Institute’s series of events Exit Disclaimer to encourage better use of social media and other digital communications tools.

Public health uses stories, Dr. Smith said, but most often they are “commandment” stories based on fear or “empathy” stories based on emotion. Although these may raise awareness or give advice, they don’t offer attractive solutions with positive outcomes that prompt people to take action or change behavior.

People take action, he said, because they believe good things will happen if they do, because they perceive the action to be easier than they imagined, or because their friends are doing it or would think it’s cool. Good stories about desirable behavior have to compete against stories that make undesirable behavior look like fun, so they must be just as compelling and rewarding, or more so.

Dr. Smith made recommendations about finding good stories; interviewing and writing techniques such as vivid, engaging openings, turning points, and elements like surprise and humor; shortening stories for social media; and, especially, crafting stories that demonstrate achievable solutions.

Public health shouldn’t just offer information and behavioral rules and rely on fear to motivate positive change, Dr. Smith emphasized. Stories are powerful, memorable, and can be very persuasive catalysts.

For more information, go to http://nyconferences.org/socialmedia/ Exit Disclaimer.

A note from AIDS.gov: We have also used storytelling to influence our audience to get tested for HIV. Our Director, Miguel Gomez used video podcasting to share his personal experience of the testing process in order to encourage others to do the same. What is your story and how are you telling it? Let us know as we move closer to National HIV Testing Day on June 27, 2012.

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