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Stories that can save lives

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

Real Science Alister SansumWhen French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard made that famous comment, he might as well have been addressing healthcare communications today. We live in an age of incredible access to - and inundation from - health information. As noted by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers in its 2015 report, an explosion of open sharing platforms and new digital directories is rapidly increasing the volume of available information.

All this information presents a serious challenge to healthcare professionals (HCPs), who must find a way to interpret all of this new data in order to deliver the best possible care for their patients. How can health educators communicate pertinent facts and ideas in a clear and concise way?

Make the information memorable
While PowerPoint slide presentations boast meaningful data, figures and graphs, these information bits engage only a small area of the brain. Stories, on the other hand, engage multiple brain regions that work together to build colorful, rich, three-dimensional images and emotional responses in the audience.

For centuries, professors taught in classrooms for precisely this reason. The recent move to online education has increased convenience, but caused certain elements of the interaction to be lost. The same is true of medical communications. In-person meetings are becoming scarcer, and information is disseminated increasingly through webinars and podcasts. While there are real benefits to these new channels, technology should enhance, not replace, face-to-face communication.

A survey conducted by NFI Research found that 67% of senior executives and managers say their organisation would be more productive if their superiors communicated more often by personal discussion. Face-to-face interaction captures emotion and imparts immediacy in a way that other forms of communication cannot. As the volume of data continues to increase, medical education needs to break through the increasing clutter - to be delivered in a way that is both memorable and enhances the HCP's decision-making.

Health educators [need] to tell powerful stories that educate practitioners and inspire customers

Storytelling breathes life into numbers and statistics. Steve Jobs was a master of using narrative to powerfully amplify data and mesmerise an audience. Instead of listing off the iPhone's amazing features, he wove together a narrative of how Apple was reinventing the phone. Instead of simply telling, Jobs would openly marvel at the product on stage to transfer a sense of awe to the audience.

Roche instituted similar principles in the promotion of its cancer drug, Avastin (bevacizumab), which works by finding and blocking the blood supply feeding malignant tumors. Instead of simply informing stakeholders of its mechanism of action, Roche spoke of the drug's ability to “starve the tumor.” This imagery evoked a human struggle that could be overcome. It was a mini-narrative that conveyed very powerfully, in one short phrase, the drug's efficacy, and that resonated with patients and physicians.

Engage with your audience
Both examples illustrate the power of a well-constructed narrative. Emotionally engaging stories like these affect more areas of the brain than do rational, data-driven messages, causing them to stay with the audience long after being heard. This is the task of health educators: to tell powerful stories that educate practitioners and inspire customers.

But I'm not talking about your average story - I mean carefully crafted and powerfully delivered narratives that resonate with the audience. There are four key pillars to any good story.

  1. Intellectual shock. The material should be new, relevant and actionable. The audience, in this case HCPs, should be delighted, surprised and empowered to improve their clinical decision making.
  2. Aesthetics matter. Since everyone else is giving up their time to listen to what you have to say, make it enjoyable and easy to digest.
  3. Powerful delivery. Rehearse repeatedly, and emphasise or repeat key moments that you want your audience to remember.
  4. Emotional response. What does this information mean for a HCP? What is the consequence for them if they do not act on your advice? How about for their patients?

The effective communication of data is essential for a productive meeting. Our job in medical education is to convey useful information in a persuasive manner, and stories are the most powerful mode through which to do this. We strive to equip HCPs with the relevant data they need to make informed decisions - and, ultimately, improve patient outcomes. What better ending to a story than that?

Alister Sansum is general manager, Real Science Communications

In association with Real Science

27th April 2016

From: Marketing

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