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Using stories to enhance your message is not difficult, but it does require thinking about the most effective way to tell a particular story. Here is one example of how a good story can become great.  

Barbara’s Story: From Good to Great
In preparation for a city council hearing, the director of a NYC settlement house was looking for ways to make the case that health programs for low-income seniors needed continuing funding. She came across this example:

Barbara, age 80, is a retired teacher living in NYC. Her primary source of income is $543/month in Social Security benefits, plus some assistance from her church. She takes seven prescription drugs a day to manage her high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and eye problems. Her monthly drug costs exceed $250, so she often must dip into her savings or ask for help from her daughter. Because of the high costs of drugs, she says she “can’t pay for anything other than food.”

This is a good example that supports the executive director’s testimony.

However, take a look at how this example can be told as a story that even more effectively carries the message that low-income older adults need relief from rising health care costs.

Even at age 80, with high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis and eye problems Barbara is a force. A retired teacher in NYC, she nevertheless teaches Sunday School and volunteers at her church’s day care center during the week.

To continue to do the “good work” with children she has done all her life, Barbara takes seven medications daily, and her monthly drug costs are about $250, a huge chunk of the $543 she receives each month from Social Security.

Barbara has already cut costs by switching to generics, but that doesn’t work for her arthritis and eye drugs, which don’t have generic versions. And the prescription drug discount card she has helps, but not enough. Most months, she has to dip into her slim savings or ask her daughter for help.

A proud and independent woman, she has gone to dangerous lengths to avoid asking. In fact, one month, when she tried to cut back on her diabetes medication, her blood sugar soared, and she ended up in the emergency room on the verge of a coma.

“I’ve paid my taxes and worked hard all my life,” she says. “It’s not right that I can’t pay for anything other than food.”

Using the same facts as in the first example and adding anecdotal pieces that personalize it, Barbara’s story is told in a way that many people can easily relate to.

Another benefit of using a story in this way is that different parts of the story can be emphasized depending on the audience. For example, this story could be used to support an argument for expanded case management services (rather than funding for healthcare) by emphasizing the medical, transportation, food and housing issues that Barbara faces.

Additional Resources

Telling a Good Story
There are some basic strategies for constructing a good story that carries your message effectively, whether in a presentation, brochure, or in a conversation with the media. Telling a Good Story will help you begin to build your capacity to use stories to engage your audience and get your message across.

Storytelling Worksheet from SCP
This worksheet walks you through 10 questions that make it easy to identify the elements of a good story. Storytelling Worksheet.

From Nancy Schwartz & Co.

Testimonials Can Spur The Confidence and Actions You Want

Put Persuasive Storytelling to Work for Your Nonprofit

From Andy Goodman

Why We are Wired for Story

Storytelling: Clinically Proven to Work

The Too-Much-Too-Soon Problem

Telling Tales in Tight Spaces

Telling Tales to the Data-Driven

The 10 Immutable Laws of Storytelling

Seven Questions to Sharpen your Stories

Additional Tools (for Purchase):

Storytelling as Best Practice: Click Here

The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations by Stephen Denning (2000)


Find stories that can help bring life to your research or organization’s work.
Share with other Hartford grantees the stories you’ve heard or used in your communications work.

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