The Power of Storytelling in Public Services

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Fan Sissoko

“Imagine that, in the space of a year, you become unrecognizable to those around you and to yourself. You look in the mirror, but the person staring back at you is a stranger. You endure the stares of pity from those who knew you before your illness, fully aware that they believe you have ‘let yourself go’ or otherwise allowed this to happen to your body. Strangers and new friends only know you this way, and think you’re a fat, minging, moaning, disabled hag with a beard and scraggy hair and always have been this way.”

As part of a piece of research about people’s expectations for the future of healthcare in the UK, I recently visited a woman called Abbie* in her home, in the North of England. Abbie has four children, a great sense of humour, and a loving husband. She also has a rare and little-known illness called Cushing’s syndrome. Abbie’s illness is associated with high rates of mortality, and has, over the last few years, caused a drastic change in her physical appearance and her mobility.

The quote above is an extract from a little booklet Abbie has put together for friends and family. In it, she explains her condition and her symptoms, with a great dose of wit and honesty. She also writes about the emotional impact the illness has had on her. She writes about having to adapt to her new body. She writes about seeing a change in how other people perceive her. She writes about being acutely aware of her own mortality, while trying as hard as she can to carry on as normal. Mostly, she expresses a need to not be judged.

After years of battling through misdiagnosis, painful medical exams, and conflictual relationships with doctors, Abbie has decided she needed to tell and share her story, in her own words. The reason why I find Abbie’s booklet touching is that she doesn’t talk about what is right or wrong with the NHS, or about how the rareness of her condition sets her apart from others. She talks about life, death, and love. She talks about what makes us human, and what is common to all of us. She gives people around her a tool to connect with her deepest self, beyond the external manifestations of her illness, and provides guidance to those who are not sure how to support her.

To me, Abbie’s booklet is an example of the power of storytelling.

Indeed, if you are vaguely human, the likelihood is that, reading that paragraph, you felt a connection, you searched for times where you have felt this way, or tried to project what it would be like to feel this way. You might have had a faint sense that the situation was unfair and things needed to change. Or, if you are of the inquisitive kind, you’ve wanted to know more and understand the context. Either way, you’ve accepted Abbie’s invitation to step away from your current reality and “imagine that...”

“Imagining that…” is exactly what we support public sector leaders to do, whether we are designing new kinds of hospitals to respond to the population’s changing needs; reinventing mental health services so that they focus less on the illness and more on the wellness; or transforming the way schools engage with students and their communities. Of course, we go beyond the “imagine that…” stage, and help make those visions happen in real life as well.But innovation often starts with a shift in mindset. And storytelling is a wonderful tool to help us do that, for the following reasons, which Abbie’s booklet illustrates so well:

  1. Stories make people care - they can be used to generate empathy or mobilise people; 
  2. Stories break down barriers - they can flatten hierarchies, and bring people together; 
  3. Stories help people comprehend - they can illustrate complex issues, and provide structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic reality; 
  4. Stories help people suspend disbelief - they can prompt new ways of seeing, encourage creative thinking, and blow away pessimism; 
  5. Stories are empowering - they can help make those who tell them feel ownership over the need to make change happen. 

These are five reasons why innovators and change-makers within the public sector should pay more attention to the kinds of stories they are telling and listening to.

We all know that to have any impact at all, innovation needs to be driven by the needs and aspirations of people who will benefit from it. However, in a public sector dealing with lack of funds, staff shortages, political instability, it is not always easy for people who design and deliver public services to pause, listen, and reconnect with their purpose. In this context, stories of everyday people serve to generate new kinds of evidence about what matters to people, and about what is and isn’t working. They also provide an emotional connection, necessary to mobilise sometimes sceptical civil servants around the need for change.

Here at the Innovation Unit, we work to bridge the gap between those who are ‘at the receiving end’ of public services, and those who make decisions about how the public sector should be shaped and delivered. Our team of service designers, researchers and facilitators do this by bringing people’s stories to life; looking for insights into opportunities for change; and visioning and prototyping future-proof services.

Multi-media storytelling allows you to delve deeply into the joys, pains, wisdoms and struggles of those telling their stories - a level of honesty and humility that comes across only with real lives and real voices. By bringing emotion into play, providers are able to breathe fresh life into services, and users are given a legitimate reason to believe they are speaking amongst friends. Take a look at our showreel for more information; a collection of real stories demonstrating some of this life changing work in action. 

Change starts with listening - Innovation Unit showreel from Innovation Unit on Vimeo.



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