Mastering the Art of Healthy Storytelling for Better Physician Marketing

caring doctorA few words from master storytellers. The payoff is in more engaging medical marketing, better physician-patient communications, patient satisfaction and more effective healthcare delivery.

Stories and storytelling are at the heart of medical marketing, doctor advertising, hospital public relations and physician-patient interaction. Stories can be conversation, advertising and online testimonials, persuasive guidance for patients, news releases, healthy lifestyle motivation and dozens of other forms of communication.

But the problem is that storytelling is often overlooked or underutilized. Here’s how to master the art of healthy storytelling in physician marketing.

For many healthcare professionals —especially marketing and advertising communicators—the art of storytelling is a powerful means to inform and persuade. A good story is experiential, easily remembered and an effective tool for physician marketing, patient satisfaction and better healthcare. What’s more, it’s free.

We can all recall stories from childhood, from around a campfire or from around a water cooler, but we don’t think of ourselves as storytellers. With a little preparation and practice, good story telling can become natural and easy to do.

Here are some of the reasons why stories are effective in healthcare delivery:

  • A story is mentally richer than simple instructions.
  • A story motivates and inspires acceptance, action and compliance.
  • A story has the power to engage and involve the patient.
  • A story ignites empathy and imagination.
  • A story is more likely to be remembered and retold.
  • A story opens the door to conversation and better two-way communications.
  • A story transfers knowledge and can change behavior.

Storytelling Tips from Physician-Writer R. Jan Gurley

Board-certified Internist, Dr. Jan Gurley, refers to herself as a Physician-Writer, but she’s also a skillful communicator. Her writing appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, online in SFGate’s City Brights and her own blog and in academic publications.

Recently Dr. Gurley wrote about storytelling and how fresh, compelling information-written or verbal-can inspire behavior changes. In Dr. Gurley’s article here, Ten Tips for Changing Health Behaviors (and Saving Lives), she writes about “the tenth-patient-of-the-day challenge.”

After seeing nine patients in a row, Dr. Gurley writes, “So how do you say the same thing over and over again and keep it fresh and compelling?

“Heck, should you even be saying the same thing over and over again? Whether you’re picking up a chart, or sitting down to write a story about the health of your community, it sure looks like the challenge we face is no longer communicating knowledge, but figuring out how to help people put it to use. Here are some tips from the Exam Room B trenches for how to move your writing out of the realm of knowledge transfer and into the exciting world of behavior change.”

  • Make it personal. If you want someone to care about making sustained behavior change, you have to get really personal. The more personal you can make the link between a desired outcome and the behavior change needed to achieve it, the greater your chances of success.
  • Ditch the shame/blame game. We’re wired to need, and want, a narrative. But not just any narrative. For behavior change, we need a narrative that moves us along a path. Shame or blame will yank a person right out of participating in change.
  • As Realtors know, it’s location, location, location. For health topics, it’s details, details, details. Set the stage with details that a person can relate to. For example, you could tell a patient he should stop smoking. Or, you could ask how much he spends on a pack a day, then calculate how much that adds up to in a month, a year, or a decade.
  • Dig into reality. The closer the link between the behavior and the threat to health, the easier it can be to change. Pain is a great motivator. Patients who can link their chronic pain to behaviors that need to change are often powerfully motivated to change.
  • Use motivational interviewing techniques. Ask people why they don’t change. When people are asked to look at the reasons why they do something they want to change, a person can often get closer to finding ways to change.
  • Find a narrative with an arc. Framing a story with one snapshot in time might hook someone into the story, but it may not help those looking for ways to change their lives. Although it’s harder, it’s worth the time to dig a little deeper and [tell the story of] someone who recognized the problem and who’s making changes.
  • Ride the surf of community. Social media is a great way to allow communities to form around behavior-related health issues. Allowing creative, innovative ways for people to connect on shared topics of interest about health is an important tool in improving the health of any community, and online communities can drive change and traffic to your work.
  • Stay on message. What is the primary health issue and how can it be a goal that is sustained over time? Who’s looking for changes, whether they’re changes for the better or worse? What is the plan for recognizing and celebrating good changes?
  • Plan for failure. When it comes to behavior change, relapse is a normal part of the process, but one that often isn’t covered in health topics. What’s the plan when you backslide?
  • Remember the power of the positive. Studies show that focusing on the positive, rather than focusing on a threat, is much more potent at encouraging healthy behaviors. When it comes to healthy behaviors, fatalism can be, well, fatal.”

Master Storyteller Seth Godin on How to tell a great story.

One of the most concise and helpful “how-to” stories about storytelling was published a few years ago by best-selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin. In the full article, How to tell a great story, he offers advice for business that also applies to healthcare delivery, hospital public relations or medical practice marketing.

  • “A great story is true. Not necessarily because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies for a marketer to get away with a story that’s just slapped on.
  • “Great stories make a promise. They promise fun, safety or a shortcut. The promise needs to be bold and audacious. It’s either exceptional or it’s not worth listening to.
  • Great stories are trusted. Trust is the scarcest resource we’ve got left. No one trusts anyone. As a result, no marketer succeeds in telling a story unless he has earned the credibility to tell that story.
  • Great stories are subtle. Talented marketers understand that allowing people to draw their own conclusions is far more effective than announcing the punch line.
  • Great stories happen fast. First impressions are far more powerful than we give them credit for. Either you are ready to listen or you aren’t.
  • Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses. Pheromones aren’t a myth. People decide if they like someone after just a sniff.
  • Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one. The most effective stories match the worldview of a tiny audience-and then that tiny audience spreads the story.
  • Great stories don’t contradict themselves. Consumers are clever and they’ll see through your deceit at once.”

Storytelling in healthcare is a powerful and effective tool for doctors, administrators, staff members and patients. It’s effective communications that enriches and engages both patients and providers. And it’s a means to enhance your medical marketing message and produce a positive patient experience with health outcomes.

You can read more about Emotional Transportation: How Physicians Can Win Patient Compliance and Improve Outcomes with Purposeful Storytelling on the Healthcare Success blog.

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Stewart Gandolf

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Healthcare Success Strategies
Stewart Gandolf is CEO of Healthcare Success Strategies, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and "rock-n-roll daddy" to two wonderful girls.
Stewart Gandolf
Stewart Gandolf

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