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How scientific storytelling can help Pharma cut through the noise

Rather than being afraid of storytelling, pharmaceutical firms should be embracing it. Because what scientific storytelling allows us to do is to communicate quickly and efficiently. It provides a shortcut to understanding which is a powerful tool, much needed at a time when there is so much pressure on our healthcare systems and we want patients to make good, informed choices.

For many in the pharmaceutical industry, hearing the word ‘storytelling’ in the context of their business might send shivers down their spines. The inference of tall tales, narratives and plots may feel a million miles away from the statistics, evidence and facts that underpin their drug development.

But rather than being afraid of storytelling, pharmaceutical firms should be embracing it. Because what scientific storytelling allows us to do is to communicate quickly and efficiently. It provides a shortcut to understanding which is a powerful tool, much needed at a time when there is so much pressure on our healthcare systems and we want patients to make good, informed choices as easily as possible.

Let’s not forget the broader communication landscape – health choices and treatments are competing with myriad consumer communications, all making full use of these techniques. To achieve cut-though in a busy, information-overloaded society, pharmaceuticals need to use all the available tools. Scientific storytelling allows us to communicate meaning rather than information and this is enabled through several techniques.

Connecting with your audience

It is essential to make a connection with your target audience to avoid being drowned out by the noise. This requires capturing their attention.

One of the most compelling ways to do this is to – in effective – hold a mirror up to the person to offer them a truth about themselves. The closer that truth is to the person, and the more hidden that truth is in their lives, the more able you are to gain the audience’s attention.

Often people suffering from certain medical conditions keep the worst of the impact to themselves; they don’t share the reality of how it affects their lives, the consequences for their friends and family, the pain they suffer or the embarrassment it causes. If a piece of communication cuts through those barriers and resonates with those often very personal feelings, it can be moving, effective and inclusive.

Patients are often deeply concerned about not being understood, and to see themselves – and that concern being played back to them – creates a powerful connection.

Emotion, not logic, drives behaviour 

Most decisions people make are not based on logic. The hippocampus part of the brain – the logical part – is only 2% of the brain. So, if we want to change people’s behaviour, their logic is the weakest tool. To effect behaviour change, pharma brands need to tap into emotion.

So rather than spending most of our time building a logical argument we should be spending that time building the emotional argument. Statistics – even if they relate to the masses – are less compelling than individual stories. Where a statistic might be accurate, it rarely touches people. But personify the data: turn that statistic into a single story – one, human, lived-in experience – and it will resonate much better. When used well, one story can represent thousands of people.

Communicating meaning – rather than just information – sits at the heart of scientific storytelling and there are four specific techniques that work here:

  1. The mechanism of meaning. This involves referring to a familiar concept to help people understand a medical concept – such as plumbing to explain blood flow through the heart.
  2. Data context. People tend to overcommit their thoughts to things depending on the outcome rather than the probability. A swimmer might be terrified of being eaten by a shark when swimming in the sea – which is statistically never going to happen – while not giving a second thought to having an accident in the car they drove to the beach, which is much more likely. One example of helping patients understand risk is using thePaling Perspective Scale which helps contextualise risk so people can make better, informed decisions.
  3. Visualisation. People are much better at interpreting visual stimulus than words and the creative use of data visualisation has really progressed. This again can be particularly powerful for comparisons of risk – such as the risk of adverse side effects from Covid-19 vaccines.
  4. Utility. HCPs want more steer on how to act on the information they are receiving. As they are under so much pressure, they don’t always have time to process information and determine how that will impact their practice. So, when the information comes from good authority, they want that additional layer on how to act on that information – what the utility is.

Choose your narrator

This process must be done carefully – especially when the communication is aimed at the patient – as people can be suspicious of messages coming from pharma. If the utility message is to encourage people to adopt a certain behaviour, it is better coming from a peer, someone they trust, a voice of independent authority or someone who represents them.

The closer the person is to your audience the better – this is the narrator for storytelling purposes, the voice telling your story. People are most likely to adapt their thoughts and behaviours if they are told to do so by people most like them.

Engaging emotions, employing empathy and considering the situation from the patient’s perspective all build better connections – and hence lead to better communications – for pharmaceutical companies. Empathy is at the core of this – it helps identify the needs of your audience so that you can craft your story to meet those needs.

While in the medical world there is, quite rightly, that necessity for truth, it doesn’t have to limit creativity. We can go beyond the facts, the evidence, the statistics; using these storytelling techniques, so that we don’t diminish the truth nor hide the evidence, but rather share the gains more widely. That way more people can live better lives by better understanding the health outcomes that are possible for them and making more informed decisions about their treatment.

11th May 2022

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