“Inspiration? What an American concept! We don’t need to inspire people, we need to do something for them.” I was first taken aback when a member of a European patient advocacy organization claimed that inspiring patients wouldn’t work. I had to admit though, as a continental European, I was also most familiar with “inspiration” as an artistic concept, giving creators ideas about what to create next. Was there room for another kind of inspiration, one facilitated by biopharma?
I started to think more about what it really means to inspire people in healthcare communication. Is it just smoke and mirrors, or is there tangible value associated with it? Let’s start with my conclusion: One thing psychology is very clear about: Emotions translate into actions. The human intellect is powerful, but human emotion is stronger. When you match up knowledge versus emotions as drivers of behavior, emotions win by leaps and bounds. So if we can inspire people emotionally, it likely has a tangible impact.
Recently, the concept revealed itself to me again. I was at a meeting with cancer patients and care partners, where authentic, true stories were composed and shared. Of course, all the stories had something in common: Cancer had changed the lives of all participants. Yet each and every story was also completely unique and individual. One of the patients was Bob (for privacy I won’t use his real name). His story contrasted starkly with most other stories, as Bob didn’t experience the same level of family support some of the others did. At the beginning of the story writing process, Bob felt left behind. Who would blame him for being angry with his ex-wife, who left him after his diagnosis; his son, who avoids any conversation about cancer; and his fellow patients, who all seemed to have a more solid support network than him? Painful as that reality check was, Bob’s anger soon morphed into something much more powerful: Inspiration.
Rock-solid Science as Foundation
Bob was inspired by his peers as well as by his own story. He found strength within, simply by thinking about where he came from and where he wants to go with his life. But not only that: Bob also inspired all of us. His story opened new perspectives, new ways for us to think about ourselves. We developed a new appreciation for things we had previously taken for granted, while other things suddenly didn’t appear as important or indispensable anymore. Bob left that meeting empowered to speak up for himself and to make positive changes to his life that will allow him to strengthen his support network, find a suitable treatment strategy, and come to peace with his medical reality.
That experience illustrated to me: Inspiration has many faces and many names. You may call it emotion, or motivation, or the power of stories, or inspiration—what’s in a name? The point is that it is a communicator’s most important tool, in most industries and on all continents. Biopharma companies that recognize this have a much stronger handle on the narrative.
Of course, rock-solid science and clinical evidence is the basic foundation from which to launch healthcare outreach efforts. But we all know how little scientific evidence alone does to change human behavior. Take tobacco abuse as an example. Once the science was known, it didn’t mean that all smokers quit straight away. It took lawsuits, legislative changes, taxes, bans, cessation pathways, as well as emotional appeals in the form of large print warnings, in some cases accompanied by disturbing images, to significantly reduce smoking in most western societies.
Offer More Carrots
The tobacco example can only teach us so much. It’s not always possible, nor desirable, to address health behaviors with class actions or new legislation—these tend to be too heavy on the “stick” side, and don’t offer much in terms of “carrots.” A better, more readily available avenue to influence health behaviors, while respecting an individual’s freedom to make their own choice, is to be the best communicators we can be. That means backing up the science with inspiration. The “carrot” in good healthcare communication is the good story. Why do people pay money for books and movies? Because as human beings, we are intrinsically motivated to listen and prepared to take in more information if it’s delivered in an easily digestible, personal story format. This format gets our attention, and because we pay attention, we also tend to understand the main message we’re given. Even most scientists couldn’t recall all the numbers by heart in the statistics they created a week ago. But they will easily be able to recount a story their colleague told them a month ago about a dramatic incident in their family. In other words: Stories are not just easily understood, they also help us recall information.
We all have our lives to live, and being a “patient” in treatment can only take up so much space in our daily activities. Many decisions that are relevant for our health are made ad-hoc: Am I going to drink this beer, smoke this cigarette, eat this piece of chocolate? Am I going to fall asleep in front of the TV (and thereby forget to take my pills)? There is no master plan, and often there is little awareness of the kinds of trade-offs small decisions such as these represent. Will my knowledge of the effect of cigarette smoke, alcohol, sugar, or saturated fats motivate me enough to do the right thing? In the short term: Maybe. Will I remain treatment adherent in the long term? Likely not. It’s part of the human condition to know better and still do the wrong thing. Emotional appeals have the potential to correct this. Remember? Emotion drives action. Stories, when they inspire us, involve us emotionally.
The “identifiable victim effect” and personal anecdotes can undermine statistical evidence. We’ve all heard stories of 90-year-old smokers and witnessed those endless vaccine debates. People’s resistance to science can be frustrating. But pointing to individual stories and experience has an equal potential to move healthcare behaviors in desirable ways. When we’re inspired by someone, we’re moved emotionally—and “moved” can be taken almost literally. Our renewed optimism and faith in humankind and in ourselves makes us want to do something. We want to take action, and in many cases we do.
So, is inspiration an over-used, cliché term? Maybe. Even if we choose to avoid the word and call it something else, as health communicators we’d be foolish to neglect inspiration as a goal. If we don’t want to inspire, we might as well not communicate. Without inspiration, most of the information we spread is a wasted effort. As an industry, we can give stories a platform, such as that of cancer patient, Bob. In turn, Bob will motivate individuals to make changes to their health behavior. We can enable Bob and others to inspire themselves, other patients, and all of us.