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Creative ways of communicating health messages

Non-communicable diseases often develop because people do not know basic health information which would help them to reduce their risk of disease

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Regular health checks, like these in Sierra Leone, can help to detect the early signs of disease. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

From: Non-communicable diseases – Footsteps 87

Ways to share health messages and reduce the risk of developing non-communicable diseases

‘Prevention is better than cure’ is a well-known proverb. Non-communicable diseases often develop because people do not know basic health information which would help them to reduce their risk of disease. It is im-portant to communicate health messages to people in ways that are engaging and which will help them to remember.

Storytelling is part of all cultures. It helps us to explain complex ideas in simple ways. There are many ways of telling stories: theatre, puppets, interactive games, music and even modern technology like video. Here are some ideas which you might want to try in your own community:


Putting on a puppet show can be an excellent way of communicating with people, especially those who live in rural areas. Sensitive topics can be explored in a puppet show in a way which may not be possible in a simple drama or health talk. Children are often keen to watch and will repeat the message to their families and explain it to younger siblings.

Involve the community in preparing the puppet show. They can help to develop the story, work the puppets and gather people for the performance. Pick a time and place where it will be easy for people to come and watch. For more see the box below.


Technology is opening new ways of communicating, particularly with young people. If you have access to a video camera, you could make a short film to communicate your health message. Or perhaps you can write and record a song. Good words to a catchy tune will be remembered long after people have heard your performance. Start by planning what information you want to give to your audience, for example ‘smoking kills one in three people who smoke’ or ‘eating a healthy diet helps protect you from heart disease’. Think creatively about how you could engage your audience, as well as how and where you can show the film or play the song to others.


Drama games and techniques such as Theatre for Development help to get people’s attention. Many cultures are used to a more traditional style of teaching, but interactive teaching through games and drama can be fresh, new and attractive to them. You may develop a play and visit several communities to share your message. Or you may want to focus on one group of people and develop a performance in which they participate themselves.

A drama workshop exploring stigma near Jinja, Uganda. Photo: Act4Africa

A drama workshop exploring stigma near Jinja, Uganda. Photo: Act4Africa

Remember that developing a play will take time and investment from participants. You may want to keep the storyline simple to make sure your message is not lost. Think about well-known local stories and how you could adapt them in your performance.

Visual art

Billboards, murals and posters can communicate with many people within your community, as well as those passing through. There may be a space outside a school or community centre which would be perfect for placing an attractive poster with a key health message. Local artists may be willing to design a poster or even paint a mural. You could involve children in designing a creative project. This will help them to remember the message themselves and leave a lasting and visible legacy for others. You could also create your own picture book, as mentioned in Footsteps 86.


Could you use creative techniques to share information about non-communicable diseases with those in your community? Write to us to share your stories with other readers.

Footsteps has covered creative communication in previous issues. Footsteps 23 had a popular article on pup-pets and Footsteps 58 was dedicated to Theatre for Development.

Puppets for better health

Puppets bring learning to life. Puppet shows are a form of action-packed storytelling by a group. Puppets can act out private situations or struggles between people without offending the audience – tackling issues such as domestic violence or sexual health.

Puppets can go anywhere. We can put on a play in a classroom for 20 pupils in the daylight, or perform for 100 people in the village square by lamplight. Puppet shows are easier to organise than live drama because we need fewer people. The puppets and props are small and the production is easy to manage.

Some hints for a good story

  • Include music, songs and dancing
  • Use local ways of telling stories and making drama. If local stories and drama are long and repeat themselves, try the same style with puppetry.
  • Don’t try to put too many ideas in one story. Give people one idea to think about. Words and actions should all add to this idea.
  • Make the idea clear through what happens in the story. Don’t preach at people.
  • Action is as important as words. Puppets should do things, not just talk.
  • Make speeches short, with no long pauses.
  • Make plays a mixture of action, tears and laughter. Try for a balance between serious or sad events and light or funny ones. ‘Comic relief’ is very important when a story is sad or frightening. Try using a comic character, perhaps an animal, or give the characters funny names.

Puppet shows attract lots of people, hold their attention and give them something to talk about afterwards. As shown here, there are many ways to build a puppet theatre, and you can improvise with what you have available. 

Tie two lengths of bamboo or sticks about  the size of broom handles (2m long) to  the legs of a table. Tie one across the top  of the poles and pin on a backcloth.

Tie two lengths of bamboo or sticks about the size of broom handles (2m long) to the legs of a table. Tie one across the top of the poles and pin on a backcloth.

Hang a cloth or blanket over a wooden stick across a doorway.

Hang a cloth or blanket over a wooden stick across a doorway.

Tie a cloth between two trees.

Tie a cloth between two trees.

Gill Gordon wrote ‘Puppets for Better Health’ following her experiences working to improve child nutrition in West Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Her sister Sue Gordon joined her in leading puppetry workshops with local communities and later illustrated the book. The text and pictures are reproduced here with their kind approval.

Involve the audience

‘Forum theatre’ is an interactive way of exploring issues by examining a problem and suggesting a solution through role play. Actors or audience members can stop a performance and suggest how the actors can change the outcome of the scene. This helps the audience to participate in the action and think about how to solve the problem being presented. Below is an example about preventing lung disease:

  • Briefly explain to the audience that you  will be doing a play in which they will need to participate. This will engage them from the beginning of the process.
  • Ask for a volunteer to enter the stage and ask him or her to mime cooking on an open fire inside the house.
  • Ask for a second volunteer to come into the scene pretending to smoke.
  • Ask for another volunteer to play a child coming back home. He or she should mime coughing as he or she breathes in smoke from the cigarette and the fire. A basic idea of a story has now been built, and the characters identified.
  • Freeze the action and ask the audience what they see. 
  • Replay the action. This time the volunteers can speak – but they still need to keep the action brief.
  • When the action has stopped, explain that we now have a short piece that we can discuss and develop. Tell the group that they should think about moments where they could try to change the outcome for the child.
  • Explain that we will now see the scene again, a bit faster, and that when someone sees a moment for change they should shout ‘stop’. You will then freeze the action. A volunteer should replace one of the characters to try out a solution. 

With thanks to Martin Smedley, CEO of Act4Africa. 


Act4Africa is a health education charity which delivers HIV and AIDS education and behavioural change programmes to help prevent the spread of the disease. They have reached a million people with key health information using drama. Working with local partners, particularly churches, they train others to use theatre in their work.

Hang a cloth or blanket over a wooden stick across a doorway.

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