Mastering the art of storytelling in healthcare for success

Paul Furiga

President and chief storyteller at WordWrite

Mastering the art of storytelling in healthcare for success

17 January 2023 | 10min

Quick Takes

  • Important stakeholders agree healthcare innovators need to be better storytellers

  • Healthcare storytelling must be successful with those who aren’t technical experts

  • Every healthcare innovator has a great story to share: Its own

Across the globe, in any time zone or season, healthcare is about saving lives, whether the mission is brain surgery or supplying medical devices. Yet if every healthcare organization is about saving lives, can they all share the same story? No.

And if the mission of a healthcare organization is so transformative that it’s beyond the realm of current healthcare delivery, the story must do so much more – it must share the excitement and hope for what lies just over the horizon. And in order to do this then healthcare organizations need to master the art of storytelling.

For an innovative healthcare organization to motivate and engage the audiences most important to its success, it must communicate its unique value in the most engaging manner possible: its own unique, compelling and memorable story.

The poor state of storytelling in healthcare

Unfortunately, while leaders of transformative health organizations are excited by the potential of their device, regimen, software, treatment, etc., they often struggle to effectively communicate that excitement.

Most innovative healthcare organizations must at some point excite investors. And a recent Edelman Trust Barometer shows that investors believe healthcare organizations are uniquely bad at describing their value.1 Of the 225 institutional healthcare investors surveyed in the US, Canada, and the UK for the “Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Healthcare Institutional Investors,” 68 percent believed “healthcare companies have historically communicated poorly with investors.”1

Why would more than two-thirds of investors who are healthcare experts, who obviously care deeply enough about healthcare innovation to invest heavily in the sector, have such a dim perspective on the state of storytelling done by healthcare innovators?

There are several reasons, some that are obvious and one that is not:

  • Healthcare innovators have often learned individuals most comfortable speaking in highly technical terms about their expertise;
  • These same leaders are often most comfortable speaking to peers, rather than other stakeholders, because the nature of science and discovery is peer-to-peer and collaborative;
  • Scientific and healthcare discovery is validated by data, and healthcare innovators are most comfortable when communicating what the data shows;
  • When they bother to share a more cohesive story, too many healthcare innovators are sharing the wrong story.

Let’s take a look at that last reason, which may not be so obvious at first to brilliant healthcare leaders steeped in their profession or the rigors of scientific discovery.

Not long ago, we worked with a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company specializing in targeted immunotherapies for people living with cancer. In this sector, the “saving lives” story of nearly every healthcare organization could be stated as “we want to cure cancer.”

Yet if the same story is shared by all clinical-stage biopharmaceutical companies specializing in targeted immunotherapies for people living with cancer, what’s the difference? To investors? To partners? To patients?

In many ways, “curing cancer” is the right story, but it’s also the wrong story because it’s not specific enough.

In healthcare, generic medicines work quite well for many applications. Generic stories never work well for healthcare innovators.

Healthcare organizations need a unique story that differentiates them from the competition

The leaders of this biopharmaceutical company realized that in the competition for investment dollars, talent, and research partners, they had to share their specific story, one that focused on what’s uniquely different about them.

As one of the company’s leaders put it: “We’re a biology shop. Chemistry is how you make a better mousetrap; biology is understanding what you need to have a better mousetrap. The biology is understanding the disease better than anybody else, the tumor microenvironment, and the cell types that come in as part of the immune response. Most firms will say they have a strong biologic component, but we’ve shown the ability to create differentiated drugs based on that expertise.”

This one statement distills the focus healthcare innovators need if they are to share the one story that will truly drive success for them: their own.

In this case, the company is a champion for cancer patients, an organization willing to do the deep biological work –  which may take time –  to develop immunotherapies that are proven, rather than follow the “flavor of the month” breakthrough approach taken by so many firms competing for the same resources. They seem to prefer issuing press releases to announce ideas that might work –  someday.

The power of storytelling in healthcare to explain your “why”

Great thinkers, as diverse as the psychiatrist Carl Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell, recognize the power of stories to human beings, whether it was Jung’s development of the “collective unconscious” or Campbell’s Monomyth, often called The Hero’s Journey.

Jung’s collective conscious concept arose from his work as a psychoanalyst in Switzerland during World War I. As in World War II, Switzerland was a neutral country in the conflict, and as a result, refugees fled there from around Europe. Jung realized as he worked with many of them in psychoanalysis that regardless of language, economic attainment, profession, or home, his patients had the same dreams, fears, and nightmares – which led him to conclude that human beings are born with a common set of stories hardwired in our brains.

During the Depression of the 1930s, Joseph Campbell was unable to secure a doctoral position in a university and instead traveled the world studying cultures, religions, and societies. In a parallel to Jung, he discovered that regardless of the region, the language, the religion, human beings told the same stories over and over again, especially one he called the Hero’s Journey, in which a disaffected outcast discovers he or she is actually a hero after having encounters with sages or wizards and enduring climactic battles. Campbell’s outline of the hero’s journey was the impetus for George Lucas when he created Star Wars and Lucas actually visited with Campbell to better understand how to incorporate his concept of story into the Star Wars films.

A common example of an archetypal Capital S Story in healthcare would be David versus Goliath. It doesn’t require a degree in biblical studies to know this archetype is the ultimate underdog story — everyone, from company founders to laymen, understands that framework. In a modern healthcare setting, this archetypal story may describe a small medical device company challenging a category leader with a groundbreaking idea.

In a field as complex as healthcare, the value of storytelling and the Capital S Story is in marrying the specifics of what an innovative healthcare organization does with a well-understood archetypal story that doesn’t require an advanced healthcare degree to explain.

The business author Simon Sinek, writer of several books, including “Start With Why,” puts it this way: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”2

Is there a field other than healthcare in which an organization’s “Why” is so important? For success, a visionary healthcare organization must be sharing a story that is built around its “Why.”

Your Capital S Story and why it matters

At our firm, we call this story the Capital S Story, because it’s a story that answers why someone would buy from, work for, invest in, or partner with a healthcare organization.

An organization’s Capital S Story gets that capital S because the answers to those four questions define the character and nature of the organization. Those answers clearly communicate — to any audience — the unique value that an innovative healthcare organization creates. They answer “why.”

Whatever a visionary healthcare organization does, it’s a fact that it will need to sell its ideas to someone at some point who may be smart, but not as smart about what the organization does. And that individual, or investor, or future employee, or partner, is not going to engage with a transformative healthcare organization or support its cause if the organization’s leaders can’t explain their story in a narrative that the stakeholder can understand and embrace.

Steps to uncover the Capital S Story

When we begin working with a healthcare organization, it’s a process that takes 60 to 90 days because several steps are involved to uncover, develop and share the organization’s story. This is frequently why an agency such as ours is engaged; the work can be intense and requires focus and dedication.

Here’s a look at the process we’ve found most valuable.

1. Have the right people in the room – when it comes to storytelling in healthcare, you have to make sure those leaders who are sharing the organization’s story with an important audience (investors, patients, partners, employees) are present to get their formulation of the story. To uncover the nuances of the story, ask these questions:

Why would someone:

  • Buy from this organization?
  • Work for this organization?
  • Invest in this organization?
  • Partner with this organization?

Then review the answers as a group. In our experience, the leaders of innovative healthcare organizations rarely share the same story and the effort to share the story more broadly will fail unless consensus is developed with nuances to address specific audiences.

2. Once there’s an initial understanding of the story internally, it’s critical to do secondary research in the marketplace of ideas in which the organization competes. It’s essential to know what story an organization’s competitors are sharing, what story important stakeholder audiences want to see, hear or experience, and what story attracts partners and talent to make the vision of the organization real.

We’ve learned that success comes from a clear narrative that combines the story that the organization’s leaders want to share and drives the results they seek. Our experience demonstrates that an archetypal storyline (remember David and Goliath?) is crucial to success here. When an archetypal storyline is married with the specifics of the healthcare organization’s process, product, solution, etc., a truly unique, memorable, and compelling narrative is created.

3. Even a great story can be ruined if the storyteller is poor. So the next step is to identify a fluent storyteller. As healthcare organizations grow, it’s often tempting to pluck the storyteller from the top of the organization chart. But the CEO or chairman may not always be the best person to share the story, though they may be the best person to run the organization. Perhaps the best storyteller is the researcher or inventor whose passion created the innovation at the heart of the organization’s work. Far too often, we find that a failure to employ the most fluent storyteller when sharing a healthcare organization’s story can significantly diminish its chances for success.

4. Lastly, storytelling in healthcare is not complete unless its success is measured. By what means will the healthcare organization determine if its story is driving results? The amount invested? The quality of researchers attracted to the organization? The number of trial participants for a drug regimen? Whatever the measure, there should be at least one that allows the organization’s leaders to determine if they are successfully sharing the Capital S Story.

In this regard, a successful Capital S Story endeavor is much like the work visionary healthcare leaders do every day in developing the solutions that drive their organizations forward. No one jumps into the lab willy-nilly and expects to develop a transformative solution without a plan, a thesis, or a full understanding of the known science around a particular problem.

Yet far too often, what we see in healthcare organizations is the equivalent of spending large sums of money on storytelling to communicate the value of the organization without bothering to figure out the actual story first. It can be a colossal waste of resources.

And as the Edelman survey of healthcare investors demonstrates, it can be overwhelmingly fruitless in terms of moving the hearts and minds (and budgets) of stakeholders critical to an innovative healthcare organization’s success.1

Developing a transformative happy ending

The challenges of global health in the last few years — COVID-19 and beyond — have only accelerated the importance of healthcare innovators and their ideas in creating a healthier future for the world.

At the same time, the competition for the resources necessary to transform healthcare is also accelerating. For example, today there are more than 30,000 medical journals, enough of them filled with competing visions, voices, and studies that confusion among healthcare consumers is rampant and important stakeholders – including investors – often have great difficulty understanding whether to invest in a particular healthcare innovation.

To chart the best path toward success in this exciting yet challenging environment, healthcare visionaries need to start the process of conveying their value by employing their most valuable communication resource: their Story.

Paul Furiga is president and chief storyteller of WordWrite, where he works with healthcare innovators to help them uncover, develop and share their most important marketing asset, their story. Previously, Paul was a vice president at Ketchum Public Relations. He also spent two decades as a journalist, covering everything from murders to the White House. He is the author of Finding Your Capital S Story.

References

  1. Edelman. (2022). Report available from https://www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer/special-report-healthcare-institutional-investors [Accessed January 2023]
  2. Sinek. (2015) Ted Talk available from https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en [Accessed January 2023]

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