Your Storytelling Probably Sucks—How to Fix It

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” —Joseph Campbell

It had been a long week, filled with the mostly usual work-a-day fare. Her train was late and short a car which only added to the strain of a Friday commute home.

Then, her phone rang.

She didn’t recognize the number that came up on her cell phone. But she answered it anyway. Mary was awaiting the results of an MRI done a couple of days prior. It was a “routine and cautious” recommendation from her physician. It was, in fact, her physician calling. As she explained the particulars of her need to refer Mary to a neurosurgeon, Mary was still stuck on the word “tumor.”

All of a sudden, this completely ordinary commute became a train of uncertainty with a million possibilities running through her head at cross purposes. Caught somewhere between the weight of a crowded train and the lightness of her head, Mary was trying to sort out the right words for telling her husband, not knowing anything about who she is at this moment.

Tumors are kind of funny. They don’t let you decide whether or not you want surgery (or any of the stuff that comes with it). So, with little fanfare and agonizing uncertainty, Mary placed her life in the hands of people she had only recently met, and would do what she had to do to bring her body back into a place of better health.

Thanks to these newfound medical mentors and allies, surgery was successful and the pathology report positive. Before long she was back at work. While her routine was unchanged, Mary was not. The experience was a vivid lesson in the body’s weakness and the spirit’s strength. The ordinary routines of the past were new again, as was Mary’s perspective.

Sound familiar? At the least, a couple of reasons reveal why this story should sound familiar. First, it’s familiar if you know someone who’s ever been confronted by the diagnosis and treatment of a serious disease. It’s the common experience of confronting one’s mortality and returning with a greater appreciation for living—a desire to live more fully.

The Patient/Hero Journey

The second reason that Mary’s story is familiar is because it is an ancient and universal story construct. It goes back to the origins of our species and reflects how we connect and order our world ever since. It’s the narrative structure that Joseph Campbell calls “the hero’s journey.” This journey has been used to tell stories for millennia. You can see it in The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Moana, Coco, and Theseus’ triumph over the minotaur and the labyrinth he lived in.

Think about your favorite movie, or the patient or HCP journey that has driven the most success for your business. I’d bet they all follow the same general structure: Someone living in an ordinary world receives a “Call to Adventure,” only to be thrust into a special world in which a team of allies, sparked by a mentor, goes to a height, a depth, or a distance and then must make sacrifices for a reward—only to find out a true reward was waiting when their new perspective is brought back to that ordinary world, transforming it for the better.

Campbell describes it as the process of “leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring forth a richer, more mature other condition.” The journey is required to align your mind, your body, and your spirit. (“You had the power all along my dear.” —Glinda, the good witch.)

Stories are fundamental to the human experience. Stories are how we connect as humans. Through stories we learn about and order the world around us. Stories were also a part of our development and dominance as a species. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari says that our ability to organize and connect around stories meant large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully. He then said, “This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.”

Great Storytelling is Complex

If stories and storytelling are fundamentally anchored in the health and strength of the body, why then do we struggle to create meaningful and effective stories for our brands—particularly healthcare brands?

First, crafting great stories is hard—obviously they’re infinitely harder to create than they are to read or watch. Stories present opportunities to connect more deeply. But effective storytelling is also complex. Great stories embrace and live inside the complexity of being human.

Second, we’ve become used to our own ordinary world, in which businesses use “advertising” to tell people what they want them to know. Ads are not stories (with the rare exception). Ads are not structured as stories. Advertising is built to be disruptive and external—about the product or service, not a person. Great stories seek to connect with us and appeal to something inside of us.

The goal of every healthcare marketer must be to create great life-changing stories that engage people in the process of maximizing their health and wellness. As such, great stories are not optional. We have no choice if we seek to be effective in producing outcomes and fitting meaningfully into peoples’ lives.

Stories and storytelling are fundamental to healthcare. Every great story maps directly to the healthcare experience—the journey to a better self. In literature it’s often figurative. But in healthcare it’s profoundly literal.

Whether you know it or not, you’re already telling a story with your brand. Your brand story is the story that you write (edit and rewrite) with your product and services every day.

How Do We Fix It?

The following six guideposts can help you create meaningful and effective healthcare brand stories:

1. Open yourself to stories and think outside of your tradition(s):

  • Stories are everywhere. Next time you’re moved by a film, book or any kind of story take a moment to reflect on what’s happening. Try to identify the structure, the function of the characters, the conflict, and the transformation.
  • Better yet, the next time you’re looking at patient or physician journey research, think about how your brand can help them succeed in their journey. Choose content that will help them progress and achieve their goals.

2. Consult the experts:

  • Storytelling is not a secret. Open your favorite search engine and type any of the following:
    • Joseph Campbell and/or “the hero’s journey”
    • Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling
    • Robert McKee and his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting
    • Syd Field and his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
  • Also, you should still find Bill Moyers’ series of interviews with Campbell on Netflix.

3. Cast appropriately:

  • Heroes, allies, and mentors—figuring out who is playing which role is critical. While your brand may be the hero of your ad, it’s not the hero of an effective, life-changing story. Your brand is most likely a mentor or ally, one who helps the hero succeed in their healthcare journey. Patients and physicians are the heroes of this story. Your brand needs to fit in and advance their story.

4. Build a story that helps people thrive:

  • Every great story has a hero that acts—what’s the action that your hero or heroes need to take? People need help navigating their health journey. Be intentional about the behaviors and content required to successfully complete it.

5. Go big:

  • If a story is going to find and fit meaningfully into the lives of people, it has to be big and strong enough to work across any channel and setting. Your story has to work whether you’re telling the story or your customers are incorporating it into their story.

6. Separate creation and storytelling from consensus building:

  • The story you tell your customers is different from the story you tell to build consensus within your organization. To prevent your customer brand story from being diluted you need a separate story and strategy for your boss.

Building great healthcare brands that guide and inspire people to act toward better health is an imperative. Stories are powerful, ancient, universal, and essential to our development as a species and individuals. Whether we know it or not storytelling is ingrained in all of us. Storytelling is a skill. Like any skill, the more we practice creating them, the better we become.

Whatever story your brand tells, the most important part of your story is TRUTH. Whatever promise your story contains it must be true. If the experience your customer has does not meet the expectations created by your story, your customer will be telling a story that most definitely sucks (for you).

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