Our brains are wired to seek and tell stories. We are, as author Jonathan Gottschall says, The Storytelling Animal. And when something goes wrong with that animal–when we become ill–story becomes more important than ever. That’s why story is everywhere in health-care communications. We tell them to communicate the promise of new medications, to highlight the services offered by hospitals and health-care systems, and to knit together the threads of social media.
Often the most powerful stories are the ones patients tell, but all patient stories are not created equal. Some are helpful to those seeking clarity and strategy after receiving the emotionally roiling news of a life-changing or life-threatening illness. But others can make the problem worse.
Here’s what I mean:
James–a real person whose name I’ve changed–is a thirty-eight year-old man who has just learned he has CLL – Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a serious blood cancer. After his physician delivers the bad news in typically unintelligible fashion, James decides he needs to take greater control of the decisions he must make for his health. He goes online and is confronted with a cascade of information and a cacophony of story. A physician writes:
“Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) remains incurable. Over the past decade there have been major advances in the treatment of this disease. This has led to greatly increased response rates and durations of response but not yet improved survival.”*
But what does it mean to have “greatly increased response rates and durations of response”?
When James sought the perspective of fellow CLL patients, he was again pummeled by jargon:
“The usual treatment for CLL these days is known as CFR (fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, and rituximab)… Fludarabine and cyclophosphamide operate by disrupting cell mitosis…”
He tried another site, only to learn:
“EGCG is the active ingredient in Green Tea and it appears to keep cancer in check…”
“I just want to get up and go about my day. God is my savior.”
Green tea. Religion. James realizes the answers he needs will not be found here.
How does James ultimately judge which information will help him make what may be a life or death decision?
With three simple questions that every consumer/patient should ask him or herself when evaluating patient stories. They are also essential guideposts for any story the health-care industry–frequently the storytellers in this arena–should tell, when crafting either testimonials or dramatizations of the real-world benefits of brands.
Q1: What are the Points-of-View of the Storytellers?
What is their purpose for telling their story? Are they trying to provide objective information? Are they promoting a specific brand or service? Are they on a personal mission for or against a medical treatment? Are they offering support or reaching out to gain members, data, responders?
Q2: Are You Clear About Your Criteria for Trust?
Is it based on advertised credentials? On emotional connection? Is it established over time – from the on-going give-and-take of being part of a community (digital or otherwise) of fellow searchers?
Q3: Is This Part of the “Filter Bubble”?
Are you looking at a closed system of resources that are all united by a singular point of view? Are you seeing evidence of the same source of data or opinion being repeated, as if the repetition itself makes it more credible?
Once you’ve thought about these questions–questions that concern the storyteller’s motives and tactics–it’s time to turn to the storytelling itself. Every good story starts with a conflict, a problem for the hero to solve (a patient who needs to make what can be a life and death decision). The story must then proceed with an easily-followed narrative structure until it reaches the end, the resolution, the answer to the question posed as a conflict at the very beginning.
Too often, health-care communications break these basic rules, miring patients in stories without obvious starting points or confusing narratives and making them feel like they’ve been dropped into the middle of a novel or jargon-filled instruction manual, stuck with no sense of the characters or issues. This is particularly unkind considering our audience. Health-care consumers are searching for answers, directions, and meaning, and we can deliver that. If we want to help patients navigate a time of fear and confusion, we must give them stories that support their quests.
All stories are not created equal. Tell a great one.
* All these dialogues and posts have been paraphrased from real-world examples.
Joseph Gattuso is Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer of Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. Read more from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide at blog.ogilvychww.com
[Campfire Image: Luckypic via Shutterstock]