Published on 03 Aug 2023

Narratives for a brighter future

NTU researchers use the craft of storytelling to mitigate some of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

Storytelling is fundamental to the human experience. People use stories to bring across messages and information. In doing so, they make sense of the world, understand one another better, as well as influence, shape and change the beliefs and behaviours of communities.

Beyond narratives in books, the elements of storytelling manifest in many ways, such as in artistic expression, how educators convey learning points to students, as well as in the messages of communication strategies and marketing campaigns.

Through storytelling in these avenues, NTU researchers are addressing challenges that humanity faces, as identified by the NTU 2025 strategy, such as responding to the issues of healthy living and mitigating people’s impact on the environment.


American neuroscientist Dr Paul J. Zak found through his research that stories that stimulate us emotionally not only elicit a physiological response; they also inspire behaviour change. The more a story resonates with an individual, the more likely they are to change their behaviour.

Humour, for instance, can be used in stories to highlight the most important lesson, catching the attention of an individual.

Comics are especially effective at communicating humorous stories. They can be used in campaigns to raise public awareness of important social actions. The more relatable the comic, the more memorable it is.

Dr Keri Matwick, a lecturer in the Language and Communication Centre at NTU’s School of Humanities, explores in a paper published in Discourse, Context & Media, how the Singapore Government used humorous comics in national campaign posters to try and improve hygiene conditions in public toilets. The comic posters, some of which depict people being terrified of bad smells from the toilet, are found throughout the city-island’s public toilets and provide instruction on social etiquette regarding the use of these spaces.

Dr Keri Matwick from NTU’s School of Humanities. Credit: NTU.

In the campaign, humour serves as a powerful discursive strategy to educate the public and makes the content relatable, while addressing the taboo topic of bathroom business.

“The comic’s humour and visual-verbal interplay, simple narrative plot and exaggerated characters make it possible to remind, instruct and chide without sounding overbearing,” says Dr Matwick. “The choice of the comic genre as the medium of the message also allows for a made-up world, making it more possible to address unpleasant topics with a message that is both relatable and memorable to the general public.”

Beyond immediate behaviour, stories can also be used to bring social change and address some of the most pressing issues in the world today. For example, artists in Southeast Asia are leveraging storytelling to express and communicate anxieties and feelings about climate change.

From monsoon floods to forest fires, there have been numerous alarming environmental scenarios in the region in recent years. Artists and climate activists are reacting to these circumstances by proposing methods to create awareness and navigate them.

A study led by Prof Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, seeks to identify artistic inquiries focused on addressing environmental challenges in the region. The research project investigates the capacity of art projects to deepen the understanding of the effect of accelerated climate change in South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Pacific.


With the advent of technology, people are now able to share stories across the world through the Internet. In education, this development brings about profound changes.

Like an engaging story, an effective lesson draws students in and makes them want to learn more. Educators are now able to communicate lessons and teach students from anywhere in the world through online learning. This rose in prominence amid the COVID-19 pandemic when students had to study from home and could not physically attend school as governments tried to minimise the spread of the coronavirus early in the outbreak.

But there are challenges.

A study by the National Institute of Education (NIE) at NTU, led by Dr Imelda Caleon from the institute’s Office of Education Research, suggests that online learning could be less effective among secondary school students. There was consensus among the 40 students from five schools interviewed from October 2020 to March 2021 that online learning was less effective than in-person lessons.

Some students even attributed stress they felt to online learning, as they expressed doubts of its effectiveness, according to the study published in Educational and Developmental Psychologist.

Still, several students did not find online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic stressful.

To ensure students are engaged during online lessons, the researchers say teachers “should consider ways to help students adapt to the new learning environment and provide channels to check their understanding of lesson content and seek clarification”.

NIE lecturer Dr Tan Chee Soonone of the study’s co-leads, adds: “As adolescents are particularly worried about peer relationships and reported loneliness during the pandemic, teachers should explore ways to provide students opportunities to work together and interact, even during online lessons.”

The format that online instruction takes also matters. 

“Personal contact is often missing from online learning,” says Asst Prof Sonny Rosenthal from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI). “Even when everyone uses video and audio in an online learning environment, the experience lacks the richness of face-to-face instruction. Based on my research, ‘live composite’ videos seem to reduce that richness gap, but it’s not perfect.”

In live composite videos, slides with a transparent background are superimposed on a video recording of the lecturer, which creates the illusion that the lecturer and the slides are in the same space.

The different video lecture formats that were tested with students in a study. The live composite format was preferred by students. Credit: Sonny Rosenthal.

A paper Asst Prof Rosenthal coauthored, published in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, showed that students preferred live composite lecture videos to clips that show slides with a video of the lecturer tucked away in a box in a corner. They also paid more attention to the live composite videos.

But fundamentally, despite online learning, storytelling as a mode of communication will remain the same, says Asst Prof Rosenthal. “Developments in technology and pedagogy create new ways of sharing ideas, but the stories and their effects on listeners will largely be the same, even though storytelling as an act may change.”


Social media has now become an increasingly important source of news for many people, with platforms encouraging users to share, tell stories and craft their identities through the content that they post. However, with the rise of social media, more fake news has been created and shared.

“If you were to look at it from a journalism perspective, it seems like with the digitisation of news and proliferation of social media, everyone can be a journalist,” says Assoc Prof Edson Tandoc Jr, Associate Chair (Research) at WKWSCI and Director of NTU’s Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet. The distinction between the news producer and the news consumer is now extremely blurred.

“This has effects on the way we connect with other people,” he adds, explaining that traditionally, news was not only used for information purposes. “We consume news not only to inform ourselves about what’s happening in the world; it has social utility as well. For example, when we used to do news clippings and send them to another person, it acts as a conversation starter. It’s also a way to show people that we care about them, we remember them and we know what they’re interested in.”

Assoc Prof Tandoc says that as sharing and distributing stories among our social networks become much easier, the act of exchanging such content is now more salient in shaping and strengthening our social connections.

“Our expectations of how trustworthy stories should look like have also changed due to our usage of social media.” He elaborates that in the past, news was written in formal language, in the third person and in an inverted pyramid format where the most crucial information was presented first – but now, people gravitate towards more informal and conversational first-person narratives.

“We seem to trust stories more when they are presented as personal anecdotes, and this makes it easier for false accounts to go viral,” Assoc Prof Tandoc says. He explains that this could be due to us as a society still figuring out how to deal with the technological advancements that have been moving faster than we can react.

“We have not even solved or figured out how to best deal with text-based misinformation, and now there’s audio and video-based misinformation on TikTok to deal with. There’s a lot of work to do, and we always end up playing catch up with technology – sometimes, it’s too late by the time we realise how serious the problem is.”

Assoc Prof Tandoc adds that part of the issue lies with the institutional bias towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. “In general, many STEM efforts, including technological innovations and novel medical approaches, do not sufficiently incorporate social sciences. It would be helpful if we could understand how people respond to these new technologies and how these inventions can fit into preexisting social processes.”


In marketing and outreach, stories in the forms of personal experiences and corporate advertisements help consumers understand why they should care about something.

Many diseases can be tackled by making lifestyle changes and health-related knowledge shared on social media can potentially save many lives. Health-related information shared by medical professionals and providers include rare conditions, the latest findings in medical research and preventative actions that one can take. On social media platforms, user-generated health content in the form of experience-sharing by individuals sometimes also contain practical advice and useful information on certain medical conditions.

Assoc Prof Lee Chei Sian from WKWSCI examined the use of Twitter for sharing and seeking health-related information in a preliminary study published in HCI International 2020 – Late Breaking Posters.

“Our aim was to make sense of diabetes-related Tweets by classifying the tweets so that they are more meaningful to different groups of users, such as healthcare providers, patients and the government,” says Assoc Prof Lee.

She explains that user-generated content on Twitter is helpful for doctors to better understand a broader range of patient experiences and the information could complement their knowledge from their work in the field. For individuals, the platform allows patients or caregivers to share their healthcare experiences, including preventive measures and treatments for diabetes, which can be highly valuable for other patients or caregivers.

The way marketing materials are presented to the public to encourage them to eat healthily can also play a role.

Researchers from NTU recently found that the frequency of short melodies called “sonic logos” used to help market a brand, such as in advertisements, matters. 

Consumers associate a higher frequency sonic logo with healthier food products, according to the study published in Food Quality and Preference.

Neuroscientist Prof Gemma Calvert from NTU’s Nanyang Business School, who led the study, explains her research found that high pitched sounds and being healthy are linked to smallness and lightness, while low frequency sounds are associated with less healthful indicators because they connote largeness and heaviness. “This makes sense as we often refer to foods high in calories as ‘heavy’ whereas when eating more healthily, we say, for example, that we are having a ‘light lunch’.”

Prof Gemma Calvert from NTU’s Nanyang Business School. Credit: NTU.

This is relevant for brand owners because sensory stimuli such as sounds – think jingles and sound logos – play a prominent role in branding.

“Sound is the fastest human sense – faster than smell, taste, sight and even touch. When that is combined with the fact that music invokes emotion in people, the importance of understanding the impact of sound in branding rings crystal clear,” she says.

“Our study provides useful ideas to brand managers and their agencies who are seeking a sensory branding strategy for healthy food products.”

The article appeared first in NTU's research and innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #21, December 2022).