Storytelling is the basis for human connection, with oral and written traditions stretching back for millennia.
Our brains have evolved to respond to stories.
It is not only patients and consumers who respond to excellent stories. Scientists and health care professionals are also humans with emotional and intellectual attachments to engaging narratives.
How can medical communicators use scientific storytelling to help write engaging stories for physicians and other health care professionals?
Like many other busy professionals, health care professionals can be overwhelmed with the amount of information that they receive on a daily basis. To reach them effectively, medical content needs to be concise, well-crafted, and relevant to their experiences.
The same goes for consumers. When scientific insights are delivered using the principles of storytelling, the data come alive.
Why do stories matter? An article in Forbes cited the late cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner's contention that people are 22 times more likely to recall a fact when it is part of a story.
Humans are wired to remember stories because they engage our senses and emotions. “Injecting hard numbers into your story will raise the stakes and bring your call to action into clearer focus,” writes author Kate Harrison. “Bottom line—the combination of data + story—satisfying both left and right brain thinking—is what will ignite your audience to act.”
As Rafael Luna, PhD, the author of The Art of Scientific Storytelling, writes, “Scientific storytelling allows the broader scientific community to understand, grasp, and remember your research.”
Science Over Brand
Although branding is an important part of much medical communication, evidence is emerging to show that providers care about the science, not about the brand.
As this article in Healthware Medcomms puts it, “No doctor wakes up in the morning asking what your brand can do for them.”
Instead, health care providers respond to compelling, accurate scientific information from trusted medical sources.
Part of gaining that trust is understanding the age-old principles of storytelling.
The Power of Story
At the 2018 AMWA Conference, Cynthia Lollar, MFA, MAA, and James Mathews, MA, presented a session titled “The Power of Story in Science Communications,” a summary of which was subsequently published in the AMWA Journal. “Informational content is designed primarily to help the audience DO or UNDERSTAND something, quickly and easily,” the speakers said.
The presenters explain that a story presents facts in a “winding, human-centered journey, so that you feel something such as tension, humor, suspense, curiosity, fear, wonder, or impending change.”
A good storyteller knows what is essential and what to leave out. According to Lollar and Mathews, a story has
A compelling character with a defined goal
A journey through conflict/complications toward that goal
A character who is altered by a dramatic series of events that culminate in a climax or emotionally significant resolution
No matter what story is being told, humans connect emotionally with narratives that engage them in this way.
The Brain and Storytelling
In this article in Harvard Business Review, Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor at Claremont Graduate University, explores the brain’s response to powerful storytelling. His lab has been measuring the amount of oxytocin released in the brain when people connect with the emotions of a narrative. Zak advises businesspeople to “begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story.” He writes, “Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives?”
Zak’s research has shown that stories that have an element of tension engage our curiosity and get us emotionally involved. Similarly, health care professionals respond to engaging content that demonstrates the importance of science for serving a greater good.
The Universal Impact of Storytelling
In this post from LSE Impact Blog, author Anna Clemens explores the basic elements that exist in stories—character, setting, tension, action, climax, resolution—and applies them to scientific storytelling.
As Clemens explains, the main character in a scientific story is the object of study. The setting is the scientific background. “But—just as with any Hollywood success in the box office—your paper will not become a page turner, if you don’t introduce an element of tension now,” she writes. “Your readers want to know what problem you are solving here.” The findings are the action of the story, and the conclusions are the climax.
Critical argument and persuasion also enrich and enliven medical writing. As Edward J. Huth, MD, wrote in the classic medical writing textbook, Writing and Publishing in Medicine, “Scientific papers must challenge you into believing what they conclude; they must be built on the principles of critical argument.”
Since the 1970s, most published scientific papers have been structured similarly using the IMRAD model—Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion. IMRAD provides the organizational structure to tell the scientific story within the research and provides a basis for answering questions such as:
What is the research about? What did you do?
Why did you do it?
Where did you do it?
How did you do it?
What did you find?
Why should we care?
In the same way that journalists answer the questions “who?” “what?” “when?” “where?” and “why?” these IMRAD-based questions can help inform a scientific narrative and connect readers to the storyline.
Medical communicators are also increasingly using creative approaches such as data visualization and infographics to enhance their scientific stories. Finding ways to creatively highlight scientific information helps capture the audience’s attention and share the message and meaning behind the science.
Telling the Whole Story
Like all writers, medical communicators are storytellers. However, the stories we tell must respect and honor the scientific process. Even though humans like stories with happy endings, not all scientific stories have clear resolutions or positive outcomes. Scientific integrity lies at the heart of all medical writing, and ethical behavior is imperative.
Principle 2 of the AMWA Code of Ethics reads, “Medical communicators should apply objectivity, scientific accuracy and rigor, and fair balance while conveying pertinent information in all media.”
Medical communicators seeking education in narrative medicine might consider on-demand courses such as Three Perspectives, One Purpose: Why Medicine Needs Memoir. This AMWA session shows how storytelling can foster better communication among care teams and improve outcomes. It is taught by a trio of expert presenters with experience in medical communication, television, and fiction.
Excellent scientific storytelling can honor the underlying data while engaging the hearts and minds of the audience.
As Annette Simmons writes in The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling, “Thread the beads of your facts with a story so they won’t roll away. A story has life. Facts are inert.”