The tobacco industry is infamous for using marketing and messaging to market their products to children and marginalized populations, and to influence tobacco legislation. For public health advocates to be successful in fighting against these harmful strategies, we must ensure that when we communicate, we aren’t yelling into the wind, but are strategic in our purposes and using the best of what social science teaches us.

Creating awareness about an issue is often the first step toward action when it comes to creating change, but it should never be the end goal. In “Stop Raising Awareness Already,” Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, Ph.D., explain how campaigns focused solely on raising awareness often fail. These types of campaigns sometimes do more harm than good by leading to inaction, backlash or reaching the wrong audience. To combat these events, you must take steps beyond raising awareness, such as creating a strategy that utilizes storytelling to create narrative structure and build the reader’s empathy.

Story Building

Storytelling—or “story building”—is one of the most effective tools we have for encouraging change. We are more likely to remember information if it is shared with us through a story. Unlike other forms of communication, stories hold our attention and help us enter the world of the characters—this is necessary for helping people take the characters’ perspectives, building empathy.

The stories you create need to be compelling. To tell a good story, pay attention to structure. Stories should follow the traditional narrative arc, with a beginning, middle and end, and include conflict and resolution. But just because your stories follow the same basic narrative arc you learned about in elementary school doesn’t mean they should be boring. You must include plot twists, unexpected character developments and a full range of emotions to keep readers engaged.

To help them remember your story and understand the perspective of characters within it, readers should experience narrative transportation—the feeling of being immersed in, or transported into, a story. To achieve this, focus on building your story with vivid imagery and include chances for your reader to empathize and identify with your characters. Your stories need to be, and feel, true. Stories about tobacco use will feel most authentic if they’re told by people who have been directly affected. For more, check out “The Science of Story Building.”

When identifying stories you intend to amplify, consider what popular narratives already exist. Do they reinforce stereotypes or threaten your reader? By identifying these dominant narratives, you have the chance to create fresh stories your audience will want to engage with.

In Tassiana Willis’ story, “The Longest Mile,” viewers are forced to reconsider the dominant narrative surrounding the diabetes crisis. Tassiana shows us how diabetes is a problem resulting from more than just poor diet and exercise. It’s also influenced by factors such as poverty, tradition and access to healthy foods. Through the use of vivid imagery, emotional moments and strategic revelations of character development, we see that health isn’t always an individual’s choice, but is impacted by several interworking systems.