Pushing Boundaries in Global Health Storytelling: A Webinar with Creative Activist Lisa Russell

View the full PowerPoint presentation and YouTube recording.

Image courtesy: Lisa Russell

As an advocacy organization, Global Health Council (GHC) can attest to how much impact we can create through our stories. Stories have the ability to compel people to act and support our asks, which include sustained global health funding from the U.S. government and bipartisan support of global health programs.

We recognize the importance of hearing from the people on the frontlines of health programs – putting them at the center and in charge of their narratives. GHC has supported patient advocates to tell their stories at the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA71) and, more recently, at the just concluded interactive civil society hearing in preparation for the High Level Meeting (HLM) on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this September. However, we find ourselves asking, how can we better elevate the voices of the people for whom we advocate?

Cue our webinar co-host, Lisa Russell, an award winning filmmaker and creative activist. Lisa was kind enough to share her experiences with and expertise in storytelling, specifically why it is essential, and more importantly, why it is critical to practice it correctly and responsibly.

A few key highlights from Lisa’s presentation:

Storytelling is a very important element of global health advocacy but we need to invest as a community in making sure the stories we tell are accurate, respectful and responsible.  That comes with investing time in teaching/learning and growing the craft.  It’s a relatively new trend in the global health community but it needs to be based on true storytelling for it to be high quality and sustainable.
Lisa Russell, MPH.

1.Telling stories is critical because the act forms an emotional connection between the storyteller and the audience. There are several types of storytellers including, but not limited, to filmmakers, poets, photographers, musicians, writers, and even beatboxers. However, storytelling is not marketing, journalism, advertising, communications, or campaign slogans. While complimentary aspects of communication, they require a different skill-set from storytelling.

2.Perhaps most important to note is that stories have a structure. They have key elements, which, when built, create a memorable and impactful story. These elements include character, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Lisa refers to her short film, Heroines of Health, to illustrate how each of these key elements play a role in creating a highly acclaimed and impactful story.


Common pitfalls in storytelling in global health are usually around telling a flat linear story, often chronologically (…and then…and then…). With such storytelling, there is no character development, no real conflict or climax, and often the story is unmemorable. Also, many people will start with text to share the context of the story, which detracts from the purpose of the story. You want the story to move people, to be a journey and an experience that they are invested in.


Why pursue responsible storytelling?

If done well, global health storytelling can enable the global health community to elevate stories of struggle and resilience in a way that reaches a larger audience and has greater impact on funding and legislation. If done poorly, it can perpetuate “poverty porn” and a storytelling trend end that is not effective, respected or sustainable.
Lisa Russell, MPH

So how does one begin to create impactful stories?

First, consider partnering with storytellers: musicians, artists, and filmmakers-. They are bold and emotional, have a large following, and have the ability to break down information in a more relatable manner. You can create strong and sustainable partnerships with these storytellers by inviting them to sit “at the table”, invest in their understanding of your organization and the issues you focus on, and invite them to host professional development workshops for staff and/or patient advocates.

You can use different devices to create an impactful story. You can use your story to break down stereotypes; create characters as people first, before their professions; underscore universal or cross-cutting themes that most audiences can relate to; and, of course, use the the story structure to make your story more memorable.

Even with these tools in mind, it is critical to invest time to develop the craft of storytelling, so that the final product is a true reflection of the stories we seek to tell, and are respectful of the people who have let us into their lives. These stories do have the highest chance of connecting with our final audience, and getting them to act on the asks we make of them.

Stay tuned for future webinar on this topic and others!

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