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Curb your enthusiasm (if you want to impress)

How do you build trust in pharmaceutical marketing? Through what you say, not by how loud you shout.

Every pharma company salesforce has at least one individual who is the life and soul of the sales conference, whose energy and excitement is infectious. The sort of person who could start a conga in a crematorium. Strangely though, these people are not usually the most effective salesperson in the fieldforce. That is more likely to be the quiet, thoughtful individual at the back of the room.

Having a larger than life personality may be useful when selling snow to eskimos, but it cuts little ice when selling to healthcare professionals. When presenting to a medical audience, overstating your case may actually count against you.

That's because most doctors, like most people in the pharma industry, are scientists at heart. We are weaned on the scientific method: set up a hypothesis, test and re-test it to establish proof and falsifiability, stack up the evidence, then invite other scientists to chuck bricks at it.

This is reflected in the language of clinical studies, which convey information objectively and dispassionately, using the past tense and passive voice, hedging the findings with caveats and couching the results in terms of probabilities. Every paper concludes with a list of limitations, criticising the study's flaws and weaknesses. Thereby allowing your colleagues to conclude that your methodology sucks, and you're not all that and a bag of chips, scientifically speaking.

But it's not just your method that matters, it's the manner in which you present your findings. Archimedes may have run naked from his bathtub shouting Eureka, but to win the trust of your fellow scientists, it's better to be moderate in your language and measured about your discoveries.

Isaac Newton was a notorious self-promoter, but he had the nous to play down his achievements, stating: "If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." The theory of evolution – perhaps the greatest discovery in science – went unpublished for 20 years because Darwin was petrified about overplaying his hand, and only went public once his rival Alfred Wallace had come to the same conclusions. Even then the announcement was modest: On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. Not exactly a Sun headline, but it galvanised the scientific establishment. Some news is big enough without need for exaggeration, which can undermine credibility.

That's still true today, as a recent article in the New Yorker magazine demonstrated.1 Sixty-six million years ago an asteroid struck the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs along with more than 99.9999 per cent of all living organisms. The evidence is legible in a geological layer called the KT Boundary, but scientists dispute its validity. The issue now seems to have been settled by a palaeontologist named Robert DePalma, who has discovered a fossil site that provides a snapshot of that single catastrophic day. But DePalma lacks authority in the eyes of his peers because, as one of them said, "There's an element of showmanship in his presentation style that does not add to his credibility." When interviewed about his discovery, DePalma said, "It's like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark" – so you can sort of see their point.

The greatest sin in science is hubris - overstating the importance of your findings or your status. You may be a rocket scientist, but that don't impress Shania Twain much, and she doesn't even have a medical degree.

This creates a challenge for those of us working in healthcare advertising. The instinct of Mad Men is to hype everything, to amplify small advantages and dramatise the emotional impact of the brand, or create drama where there is none. When non-specialist agencies enter the healthcare field they are swept up in the life-and-death drama of medicine. So they further raise the emotional stakes, not realising that life-transforming events are daily routine for healthcare professionals, who don't need reminding about the suffering that surrounds them.

But Med Men - specialists in the healthcare arena - realise that the most effective stance is often: "Speak softly, and carry a big dataset". We leave the attention-grabbing headlines about medical breakthroughs and miracle cures to tabloid journalists. In any case, the Code of Practice prohibits us from superlatives and exaggerated or all-encompassing claims. And the chances are, a low P value or high Hazard Ratio will excite a medical audience more than a lurid description of how awful it is to be ill.

But what happens when the data are not compelling?

We worked for a pharma company whose internal mantra was "science sells" – just let the data speak for itself, they said. This worked perfectly for the company's blockbuster product, which was supported by impeccable clinical evidence. But it was less effective for their successor product, which was still pretty impressive but had some flaws in its data.

That's where creativity was needed, to build a credible narrative for the product and identify the patients who would benefit most. Scientific data is still the payload, but creativity enables you to deliver it with maximum impact.

Creativity doesn't mean exaggerating the facts; it means identifying and emphasising what is important to the customer, and communicating it persuasively. Creativity becomes even more important when your competitive advantage is small. It involves understanding your customers' unmet needs and unspoken concerns, spotting overlooked opportunities and 'hidden truths' about the brand or therapy area, and expressing those truths in a novel and arresting way. Focusing on the emotional impact of giving and receiving effective treatment, not just the impact of the disease. Standing in the doctor's shoes and speaking the language they use when talking to their peers – in effect, becoming one of their peers. This is how you gain credibility, and credibility builds trust.

Persuading people in any walk of life to change their beliefs and behaviour is not easy. Even with a topic as pressing as climate change, the messages are so mixed that people ignore them or are paralysed into inaction. One way to change this is through simple metaphor. In the words of a girl for whom English is her second language: "When your house is burning down, you don't sit inside and discuss insurance or how to rebuild it. You do everything you can to put out the fire". Addressing the UN, she said: "I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act."2

Greta Thunberg is not an eminent scientist, she's an autistic 16-year old with no media training playing hooky from school, but she has the attention of the world. Which goes to show, it's not who you are or how loud you can shout. It's what you say and how you say it.

1. The Day the Earth Died. Douglas Preston, The New Yorker, April 8, 2019.
2. Greta Thunberg, speech to UN secretary general in Katowice, December 3 2018.

©2019 Life Healthcare Communications

20th June 2019



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