How medical research charities can tell better stories – highlights from CharityComms Storyfest

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CharityComms recently ran ‘Storyfest’, an excellent conference about great charity storytelling. This blog reflects on science storytelling. Plus, I share my highlights and top tips for how medical research charities can tell better stories about their work. 

Science storytelling in charities

During CharityComms Storyfest (as with other conferences on storytelling I’ve attended), there is a great emphasis on the stories of people with lived experience. 

It’s clear why these stories are a big focus for charities, including medical research charities. Stories from patients are compelling. They get across an issue that may otherwise seem abstract, better than any stats and figures can. 

It’s right that medical research charities take an interest in stories from patients or their loved ones. But I’ve noticed one group of people whose stories often aren’t treated with the same interest or respect – scientists. 

Often, researchers’ stories are an add-on to someone else’s story. Too often the story portrays researchers as a one-dimensional fashion: Dr Bloggs is doing some science. We hear nothing about them as a person, their motivations, their lives, or struggles.  

But why should we care?

Let’s think of the classic charity communications triad – Problem, Solution, Impact. Stories from people with lived experience get across the “Problem” and the “Impact” effectively. 

But the “Solution stories” are missing. In the case of medical research charities, these stories are partly (sometimes entirely) provided by scientists. Let’s not forget that the Solution in the triad is what you actually do as a charity. It’s where the charity spends the money, how you’re solving the problems and creating the impact. In my opinion, medical research charities should have as much interest in researchers’ stories as in their ‘case study’ stories.  

In an attempt to address this, I’ll share some of my highlights from the CharityComms Storyfest conference – through the filter of providing medical research charities with tips for gathering stories from researchers. 

Laying the groundwork

One central theme was the importance of getting things in place to make your charity’s story gathering run smoothly. 

Make yourself visible

Amy Dearing, head of marketing and digital at Haven’s Hospices, said she makes it her mission to be as visible as possible. In her charity, that means spending time with the care team and staff at hospices understanding their work and gaining their trust. Amy believes this time investment means she is the first to hear important developments in hospices and stories from families.  

In the case of a medical research charity, that could be building better relationships with the person(s) in charge of managing your research grants. It could also be speaking directly with researchers regularly. This means they know who you are and you’re not just contacting them when you need something from them. 

You can make yourself known to your colleagues across the charity, particularly your fundraising colleagues. Get to know how they work, and what they’re after in terms of research updates.  

Take time to explain to people what you’re after, and why

Sightsavers is a charity that helps treat and prevent avoidable blindness all over the world. The charity’s content manager, Kate McCoy, explains that she relies upon people ‘on the frontline’ in their overseas programmes to gather stories for the charity. She spoke about the importance of getting across to people what you’re after and why. After all, gathering stories and content is something they being asked to do on top of their day jobs – why should they?

For medical research charities, it’s important to tell your colleagues and researchers what you’re after. You can show examples of how your charity has used researcher stories in the past and give guidance on what you need. This could be finding volunteers for interviews. But equally, a quick photo, a self-filmed video, or an anecdote sent in an email. 

Getting stories

Many of the speakers at the CharityComms Storyfest gave insights into how they went about gathering the stories. 

Different sources for stories

Amy Dearing from Haven’s Hospices explains that good stories don’t have to be long-form interviews. They can be a quick video, a photo, or an anecdote. To staff at Sightsavers’ oversea programmes, Kate McCoy gives the simple instruction to capture ‘everyday stories’. Ruth McDermott, the senior content specialist at NSPCC, explains that their stories come to them from a variety of sources. This includes their services like Childline and direct enquiries from people wanting to share their story.  

For medical researchers, inviting your researchers to share a quick insight into their everyday work can lead to some great stories. 

The lockdown to mitigate COVID-19 pandemic has brought its challenges. But it has also provided opportunities. In a panel Q&A on gathering content in lockdown, Alicia Meville-Smith, British Red Cross’ stories manager, explains that their previous protocol of interviewing people face-to-face means they were restricted to people near London. But being forced to talk by phone or video call means they’ve expanded the number of people they can speak to across the UK. 

Medical research charities, particularly those which fund research across the UK or the world, should consider how they can reach as many of their researchers as possible by phone or video call. 

Have processes in place

Processes. Policies. Pro-formas. They might be boring, but essential to think about. 

When it comes to processes to gathering stories from external staff or volunteers, Kate McCoy recommends making it as easy as possible. You can achieve this by using the systems you already have in place. 

For medical research charities, encourage researchers to use grant-reporting software they already operate, or to send information to their main contact at the charity.

Amy Dearing emphasised that in her charity’s line of work (end of life care), it’s even more important to be professional when it comes to policies and processes. She takes the time to explain to anyone sharing their story how the charity will use it – when, where, and for how long. 

Though the researcher’s stories might not always be as sensitive topics as patients’, it’s still essential for medical research charities to make sure scientists are happy with what’s being shared in the public domain. 

User-generated content – provide clear guidance

If you’re asking people to gather content on your behalf, it’s important to specific with what you’re after. 

Kate McCoy and her team provide training for Sightsavers’ programme teams to explain exactly how to gather the stories. This includes everything from the basics of what makes a good story. But also the technical aspects of taking good photos and videos with a smartphone. She recognises that perfection isn’t always necessary. A slightly less-than-perfect photo or video can be more authentic than anything professionally shot. It’s the story is that matters. 

For medical research charities, the same applies to your researchers. Providing them with guidance around taking good photos and videos. This is useful when it comes to the lighting and sound as it increases the chances that anything they send will be useable. But it’s more important is to give them the confidence and permission to capture anything they think is useful. And not to worry too much about being ‘professional’. 

Interview techniques

Interviews are often the cornerstone of any story-gathering. Many of the conference talks dealt with making the most of the conversations with people who have a story.  The foundation of a good interview is trust, explains writer Tanaka Mhishi during a panel Q&A on supporting people with lived experience. Tanaka feels that trust-building should take place before the interview, building a collaborative relationship where both parties feel equal. 

Ruth McDermott sees this trust as essential in the interviews that the NSPCC conducts with people who have experienced childhood abuse. They often have an introductory pre-chat over the phone to explain what will happen in the interview and do sensitive interviews face-to-face. 

For medical researcher charities, even though researchers’ stories may not be sensitive in the same way as patients’ stories, building trust is still important. It comes back to what I mentioned before about laying the groundwork. It means being visible with your charity’s scientists, and not just speaking to them when you need something from them. 


Once you’ve finished the interview, or received the photo, the process isn’t over. 


Amy Dearing explains that she makes sure the stories of those who stay at Haven’s Hospices have as much impact as possible. And that she feels she has a duty to their families to do this. For her, this means using it as much as possible in different formats (with the family permission, of course). She shares a form called a ‘content pack’ which summarises the story in various formats (e.g. one line, 50 words, 250 words, a tweet) and gathers links to relevant photos or videos. 

Lorrin Braddick and Poppy Stalker (NSPCC’s creative director and digital content officer, respectively) explain how they repurposed films for multiple social media formats, including IGTV. Poppy explains how one interview might lead to several different pieces of content. For example, images with quotes, or different edits of videos which tell different aspects of the story. 

Francesca Corbett, press manager at Bowel Cancer UK, explains how she makes sure every story gets used. Most stories end up on the website. But they might also invite the person to speak at an event, write their own blog, appear on the podcast, do a media interview – whatever they felt comfortable with. 

For medical research charities, you could gather a range of content with your scientists – interviews, photos, videos, audio, even just quick quotes over an email. Repurposing and chopping up a story into different chunks can mean that it can be shared repeatedly and still feel fresh. 

Share successes back to people 

Finally, many of the speakers talk about the importance of sharing the results of these stories. Francesca Corbett makes sure to share the successes with colleagues at Bowel Cancer UK. This reinforces how important storytelling is, but also encourages colleagues to seek out stories from their own contacts. Kate McCoy shares stories with the programme staff at Sightsavers. This shows the results, says thank you, and shares best practice too, as a form of peer-to-peer learning. 

For medical research charities, make sure you share with scientists what happened with their story, and use it as an example to encourage others to do the same. 

I hope you find these tips useful, and use them to help your charity tell better stories from your scientists. Thanks to CharityComms and all the speakers for their great talks and insight. 

Do you think your charity treats the stories of researchers with the same respect as those from patients?

If you want to discuss any of the ideas or talks from the CharityComms Storyfest, get in touch, I’d love to chat! You can email me, or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn

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