The Ridiculous Reason Why I've Never Gotten a Flu Shot...

By Nathan Young - Storytelling Consultant

Winter is approaching and as such, flu season will soon be upon us soon. Every year around this time I see the ads and hear friends talk about how they plan to get their flu shots. I start to think to myself that maybe I should do that too. Yet, right before I pull up a new browser window to search for where I go to get a flu shot, a little voice of doubt creeps into my head. Within that voice of doubt is a really interesting lesson on storytelling that I want to share with you today. 

Many years ago I saw a strange TV news story that’s been lodged in my mind ever since. It’s about a woman who got a rare neurological disorder as a result of getting a flu shot. I found the clip on YouTube and you can watch it here. 


For those of you that didn’t watch, here is a summary:

The woman was a healthy, 25 year old, aspiring cheerleader. She got a flu shot and a couple weeks later she found herself with a neurological condition that made her walk with a jerky motion, and unable to control her speech or body movements. Stranger still, she didn’t experience the jerky movements when she walked backwards, and the neurological condition seemed to completely go away while she was running. 

Weird, right? Perhaps even implausible. The whole story defies credibility, or is an example of a very rare instance that shouldn’t discourage anybody from getting a flu shot. THOUSANDS of people die from the flu every year. Even if a couple people get a strange neurological disorder, the odds are highly in your favor that the flu shot will be beneficial—even life saving! 

Yet for some reason this story has stuck in my head ever since I saw it. It’s been the little voice of doubt that has kept me from getting a flu shot year after year.  

This is a classic case of storytelling at work. 

As humans we’re hardwired to empathize with other humans. When we hear and see their stories, our brains immediately start to process the story as if it’s happening to us. This is especially effective when we’re presented with a specific person to relate to. A story with the face and voice of a specific person can emotionally over rule all other objective evidence, no matter how solid the science is. 

This is important to remember when we think about why some stories stick in our heads despite all credulity and other stories don’t get believed no matter how credible. When there is a specific person in Minnesota going on the news and pointing to six feet of snow as evidence that climate change isn’t real, that’s oftentimes more believable to people than the nameless faceless report that goes out with all it’s stats, evidence, and peer reviewed data. 

There are other examples of this phenomenon too. Have you ever caught a news segment of a person that won the lottery and caught yourself thinking, “oh wow, that could be me too?” Or if you’re an entrepreneur you’ve probably seen the ads that say, “Use this one weird trick to increase your business 10x, just like I did!” Again, you might think to yourself, “that could be me!” It’s also the reason why many news articles and documentaries tackle a large global issue by focusing in on one person first and then expanding out from there. 

As ridiculous as it sounds, I relate to the woman that got the strange neurological condition from her flu shot because I see her and hear her story. I don’t see and hear the stories of millions of people who went and got a shot, thus avoiding the possibility of getting a flu this year. I also don’t see and hear the stories from the thousands of people that die from the flu each year, so their stories aren’t as high in my mind. I’m left with the story of the woman with the strange psychosomatic neurological condition stuck in my head, and that occupies a far larger space than all the other objective evidence combined. 

Of all people, I should know better! 

This is all an important point to think about for your own stories and how you communicate out in the world. Do you have a story about a specific person either you or your organization helped that you can share with your audience? Think of how that will resonate and get them thinking, “that could be me!” 

This can be helpful for nonprofit fundraising too. As you show the people being helped by your organizations programs and services, donors can get a sense of the direct results that will come from their donations. 

Making a story about an individual person can be incredibly powerful. I know sometimes there is a fear that by doing this you’re not sharing the full impact of what you do, but it’s actually quite the opposite. By sharing the story of one person you or your organization helped, you’re giving your potential clients and donors a window into exactly what you can do for them. 

As for me, I’m planning on making it a priority to get a flu shot this year. I got a really bad case of the flu last year and a I certainly don’t want that to happen to me again. 

Also in case you’re wondering, the woman’s story for the original news program was either a total lie or a psychogenic condition. When I Googled the story to research writing this blog post, I also found the video below debunking the original news story. Surprise, surprise.  


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