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The Art of Effective Communication

Storytelling and Disinformation: Brian Zikmund-Fisher

Communication can also be influenced by dis- and misinformation. Here, Brian Zikmund-Fisher analyzes how storytelling and communicating play complex roles in the process of developing and consuming disinformation. Learn more about disinformation, misinformation, and fake news in our Teach-Out .

Excerpt From


Lots of information comes in the form of individual stories, right? We see stories in the news media. We see stories in social media. We hear stories from our friends and from our family members. When we hear all of these different kinds of stories, here’s a question for you, should we believe them? So, think about this. Stories are powerful. We relate to the people, to the characters in stories and to their situations. We learn by watching someone face a problem and then either solve it or face the consequences of their actions in the context of that story. Stories are a really effective way to pass down information from one person to another. 0:51Skip to 0 minutes and 51 secondsIn fact, most faith traditions around the globe have used storytelling as key part of their teachings, a key part of passing down information from one generation to another. Why? Well good stories, they transport us. They carry us into other people’s lived experiences, and that can be a great way to learn about someone else’s situation or someone else’s perspective. However, and this is a big however, stories are really, really persuasive. Our brains are actually structured to absorb stories and to be influenced by them. As a result, stories can bias us. They can distort our perceptions of the world, and that can happen even without our knowing that we are being manipulated or shaped by those stories. So what do we do about that? Well, here are a couple pieces of advice. First, when you hear a story, think really, really hard about the person or group, the character of the story, whoever it is who is at the heart of that narrative that you’re hearing about and ask yourself this question, are they really an average person? Are they like you or are they unusual in some way, their background, their experience, their situation, whatever it is? Why do I ask that? Well, average people’s stories don’t actually get shared very much. They don’t get told. If it’s average, then most people actually already know what the average experience is, so there’s no reason to share those kinds of stories. Who’s stories get shared? It’s the unusual ones, the rare things, the things that don’t usually happen. That’s the stories that we actually hear in the news media, in social media, et cetera, right? We hear the story of the one-in-a-million patient who miraculously gets cured of their cancer completely. Or, we hear the story of the one-in-a-million person who had a bad reaction to a vaccine. Now, these stories may be true in the sense that they literally occurred, but they’re not what we would call representative. And what I mean by that is most cancer patients are not miraculously cured without medical intervention. They don’t spontaneously get better. Most people who get vaccines have absolutely nothing happen to them. That is the normal story of a vaccine, nothing happens. And so, when we have a story in which someone says that something happened after they had a vaccine, that’s unusual, and that’s why it gets shared. As a result, we should never believe that whatever unusual happened to somebody in the story is necessarily gonna happen to us. It might, but odds are it probably won’t. And we have to remember that to be a good consumer of stories. Now second, we should always be very skeptical about people’s explanations for why something happened to them or something didn’t happen to them. Just because the person was there and they actually experienced something does not mean that they are an expert in why that happened. So, here’s a classic example from public health. A parent of a child who developed autism shortly after having their regular childhood vaccinations does in fact have a child with autism, right? That’s true. But if they claim that the vaccine that their child got caused the child’s autism, well, they’re wrong. We have the scientific evidence to show that just because you get a vaccine, does not make you more likely to develop autism. It might happen at the same time, but it’s not causal. At the same time, I can empathize with that parent because they’re dealing with their child and their child’s condition even as I know that it’s not the vaccine that caused their child to have that condition. So, that’s my advice. We got three key points here. One, anytime you hear a story, know that it can be powerful and persuasive. So pay attention. Two, pay close attention to the character, to the people in the story. Are they unusual? What’s makes them extreme or unusual enough that their story is being shared? And whatever that is, remember that it probably cannot be expected to happen to anybody else, including you. And third, always question whether or not people’s explanations or their beliefs about why something happened is actually true because they’re not an expert, usually, in why something happened. Following these kinds of steps can make you a better consumer of the stories that you see in the media, social media, and just in your day-to-day interactions.