Can creative writing change the world?

A stethoscope sitting on a medical book

How many times have you finished reading a book or watching a movie and felt inspired to change your life in some way?

Storytelling isn’t just a powerful and memorable way to communicate a message, it can also encourage people to change their behaviour.

And when it comes to healthcare, that means saving lives.

The University of Sydney recently announced a $100,000 Writer in Residence Fellowship that will use creative writing to tackle obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It acknowledges that educating the community and changing their attitudes towards chronic disease needs a creative approach that is beyond the reach of scientists and clinicians.

Instead of presenting the usual health facts and complex medical information, the writer will develop a creative work that inspires people to re-think issues like health, wellbeing, food, ageing, social disadvantage and cultural identity.

It may be through a novel, a collection of short stories, a theatrical performance, a film or another form of creative writing.

It sounds like a pretty risky move for a bunch of researchers, but it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen how a good story can transform people’s perceptions and behaviour.

Recently, Netflix’s true crime series ‘Making a Murderer’ resulted in an online petition of more than 200,000 signatures and sparked a response from the White House.

Back in 2006, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was so powerful, it was credited for raising public awareness of global warming and reenergising the environmental movement.

And don’t forget the backlash from ‘Super Size Me’ that led to new, healthy menus from fast food giants around the world.

It’s quite an impact when you consider that all it took was a fresh perspective and some creative writing.

Of course, we can’t all make blockbuster films to engage our audience. But we can use the principles of creative writing and storytelling to make sure our brand is remembered by customers for all the right reasons.

The recent Western Sydney University (WSU) campaign is a great example of using creativity to transform the well-worn concept of a case study into an emotionally-engaging piece of content.

Each video tells the story of a WSU graduate and how they are making a difference in the world, like refugee lawyer Deng Thiak Adut, who was snatched from his mother as a young boy in Sudan and forced to train as a child soldier.

Even information-heavy documents like annual reports can be transformed with a little creativity.

The 2015 Gates Annual Letter by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation uses stories to captivate the reader, combining well-written content with engaging photography, videos and infographics to share their successes over the past 12 months.

So how can you incorporate creative writing in your business?

Think Creatively

Most people limit their creativity by thinking about where they’ll publish their story, before they work out what they’ll say.

Try to ignore realities like your budget and imagine the stories you could tell if there were no limitations. How would your product or service appear in a movie or novel? If your business was a TV show, what are the moments that would cause your audience to laugh, leap for joy or wipe back a tear?

Try writing a poem or a short story instead of a case study; think about song lyrics instead of headlines.

Once you start thinking creatively, you’ll see opportunities (within your budget) that you never considered before.

Get Specific

Writing in specific, concrete language helps your audience create a visual image of your message in your mind. When you read ‘the truck rumbled down the dusty road, past lush vineyards weighed down by plump grapes’, it creates a far more compelling image than ‘a vehicle drove past the winery’.

Talking in specifics is also important when it comes to conveying information on a large scale. For example, instead of making a factual claim like ‘agriculture in Africa is an important component of its economic development’, the 2015 Gates Annual Letter tells one story that applies to many:

When Melinda visited Tanzania in 2012, Joyce spoke to her with the zeal of a preacher giving a sermon. That year, for the first time, Joyce had planted a new kind of maize seed, bred to tolerate drought. When drought came, most of her crops withered and died, but her maize was more productive than ever. She sold the surplus to buy beans and vegetables and other nutritious food for her family, and had money left over to pay her children’s school fees. “That seed,” she said, “made the difference between hunger and prosperity.” Joyce’s story, multiplied by hundreds of millions of African farmers like her, is the reason innovation in agriculture is so important.

 

Change Your Medium

There’s no reason to stick with one medium for every piece of content you create. In fact, it’s a good idea to switch it up and keep your audience interested in what you have to say.

Use podcasts, videos, infographics, cinemagraphs, hangouts and other mediums to share your content. Not only will you be able to share a wider range of stories, but you’ll be able to think more creatively when brainstorming story ideas.

I’m firmly convinced that creative writing is essential for any business that wants to change the minds and behaviours of its customers. What do you think?

I'm an SEO copywriter and brand storyteller based in Sydney, who's besotted with words, good stories and hot chips. I'm currently studying a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Macquarie University.

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