Not long ago a colleague of mine met separately with two different doctors about the continuing sciatica pain they were experiencing.
The first doctor quickly produced a ready-made patient instruction sheet, commenting (every-so-briefly) about the benefits of weight loss, diet and exercise. (It was a minimalist “do-this-and-call-me” message that had no sticking power, and the message all but went in one ear and out the other.)
The second doctor told a brief story about himself:
“I have a similar problem and here’s what has helped me. Most mornings each week you’ll find me upstairs in the hospital fitness center—it’s here in this same medical building. I use the stationary bicycle and other equipment for about an hour…shower, dress and come down here to the office.
There’s nothing particularly stressful about it. It’s become an easy habit, I’ve gradually dropped about 10 pounds so far, and my back pain is reduced. If you’d like to try a similar program, I think it would be a helpful place for you to start.”
I’ve taken a bit of editorial license in this retelling, but the contrasting doctors illustrate the impact of good storytelling in connecting the needs of the patient to a solution they can envision for themselves. Even though the basic information was the same from both doctors, the patient is more likely to respond positively to the story version.
Every doctor’s background, training and experience represent a wealth of storytelling raw material. What’s more, simply being a doctor provides a position of trust and authority; two factors that can enhance success.
Here are a few basics that, along with a little practice, can help doctors become better storytellers, engage patients and realize better outcomes:
Take AIM: Audience. Intent. Message. Organize each story around these core considerations. Understand the needs and interests of your audience. Know what you intend to accomplish or want the audience do. And construct a relevant message. Skip one of these and it’s not a story.
Structure the story. The human mind expects a story to have a beginning, middle and an ending. The listener may be distracted from your message if they are trying to find the structure. Make your first words and last words memorable.
Focus on what’s essential. Too much detail, excessive preamble or extended length will obscure the primary purpose and message. Simplify for clarity and emphasis.
Where’s the rub? Conflict, as they say, is the essence of drama. Even in a conversational setting, a good story is more interesting when a problem leads to a solution, or a challenge finds an resolution.
Be real and relevant. A story in the abstract is less likely to engage listeners, connect with real people circumstances, identify time/place, and touch feelings.
Begin with the end in mind. What’s the takeaway message? If you know where you want to go, the beginning and the middle are easier to create.
Delivering a string of facts and figures can be informative and boring. A storytelling approach—using the same facts—can be compelling, entertaining, instructive, influential and effective. And when your message truly connects with a patient need, the result is better communications, understanding and compliance.
For more on this topic, read: Neurochemistry and the Art and Science of Storytelling, and Mastering the Art of Healthy Storytelling for Better Physician Marketing.