Why stories are better than stats

At the time of writing, the ​Covid-19 public inquiry​ is in full swing in the UK.

Listening the other day took me back to that time in 2020 when we were glued to the daily Covid briefing, with ministers and public health experts standing at socially-distanced lecterns telling us what to do.

In March, at the start of the first lockdown, the messaging was clear.

Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

We all knew what we were supposed to do: stay home.

But then things got a little muddier. By May, the message changed.

Stay alert. Control the virus. Save Lives.

How you can stay alert to something you can’t see. hear, smell or feel?

The devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with some English councils, refused to use the slogan, saying it was confusing and ​would have ‘consequences​.’

By August, we were still being encouraged to be careful, work from home and maintain social distancing, but also to flock to restaurants and Eat Out To Help Out.

No wonder cases rose and a second lockdown beckoned.

With four tiers, the rule of six and bubbles, no-one in government seemed to have a clue what was going on, never mind the public.

Step forward ​Jonathan Van Tam​, deputy chief medical officer at the time, who made things so much clearer during the winter of 2020/21.

By translating Government statistics into easily understandable (often football-related) metaphors he helped us all get a better grasp of something that was, in all honesty, really difficult to explain.

People wanted to follow the rules, but by then it was hard to understand what they were and, consequently, why we should bother.

When the vaccine was developed, we all celebrated. But, to dampen down speculation and reinforce the fact that we weren’t home and dry, JVT put it into context.

“This is like getting to the end of the play-off final. It’s gone to penalties, and the first payer scores a goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

A year later, another variant beckoned. Explaining why we needed a booster jab when we all thought we were protected by the first two vaccinations, he hit the back of the net again.

“Omicron is like now picking up a couple of yellow cards to key players on top. We’re kind of starting to feel at risk that we might go down to 10 players, and if that happens – or it’s a risk that’s going to happen – then we need everyone on the pitch to up their game in the meantime. We’re not going to wait for the red card.”

(More JVT Covid gold can be found in ​this Guardian article​.)

Van Tam was a master of storytelling — unusual in the realms of academia and government — and the perfect example of how simplifying a complex message helps you communicate it.

Using analogies and putting your target audience into a world they can understand. It helps them connect with the idea on an emotional level and bridge the gap between a difficult concept and their own experience.

It’s a great technique in most forms of communication.

In some, it can literally be a lifesaver.P.S. storytelling doesn’t need to take up a whole book. Advertising can do it really well, like the famous ​Chivas Regal​ ad, or the headline in this oldie for ​Harley Davidson​ (they don’t write ’em like they used to!)