Both my parents are academics. Our family dinner conversations oscillated between discussing Kantian ethics and cell polarity. We didn’t talk about sports or celebrities, and when my friends came over to visit, I often had to remind my parents that most 8 year old’s didn’t know the difference between mitosis and meiosis. Very quickly, I took on the role of translator, helping explain to people — mostly my friends and their parents — what type of research my parents did without overwhelming them with words like “ontology” or “poly immunoglobulin receptor”. Mom studied why bad things happened to good people and Dad studied how the smallest parts of our bodies work. Simple, right? Wrong.
As it turns out, sharing the facts with people didn’t make much of an impression. It was only when I started sharing stories about my parents and their life’s work did people understand. My parents were stars of academia, but the mainstream had no idea what they did or why it was important. So, I took my translating skills a step further, transforming the complexity of their academic research into compelling stories that would matter to everyone. It was a neat trick that managed to become the basis of my career, but I never thought of its significance until recently.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was meeting with an oncology start up. This company was doing some truly category disruptive work, but they continued to struggle with helping wider audiences understand what they were doing. Their work was scientifically intricate, difficult to understand without a PhD in immunobiology. Yet, in order to scale their work, they needed people — patients, providers, payers and policymakers — to understand the significance of what they were doing. How could they transform data into dialogue and evidence into engagement? Hint: it all starts with a story.
Here are the three key ingredients I use to transform a complex health topic into a compelling, cohesive story.
1. Start With The Character Every great story starts with a character. When dealing with healthcare, there are multiple characters at play, often blurring the lines of who’s the protagonist of this story and who’s telling the story. Is it the patient who wants to be out of pain? The clinician who wants a better RPM solution? The payer trying to find a scalable SDoH program? Once we identify the character, we can start understanding their desires and how they seek to get what they want. Starting with the character allows us to humanize the topic, allowing us to picture ourselves in that situation, rather than trying to grasp something abstract.
2. Contextualize The Data Data drives healthcare, but it doesn’t make a very captivating story. Random values on a page means nothing to someone who didn’t go to med school. We need to know how the data relates to our experience and if it helps us get what we seek. A compelling story contextualizes data for a character’s main need. When crafting a story, I frequently ask, “does this data help the character get what they want?”
3. Language Matters Interestingly, a story can be told in a variety of ways, depending on who’s listening. The story you tell a patient is a lot different than the story you tell a payer. Recognizing your audience, or story-listeners as I call it, and adjusting the language so they can understand it and its relevance, creates a story that sticks. Often, health professionals are so immersed in the language of their field they forget the importance of communicating clearly, without didactic undertones. Always investigate the use of acronyms, shorthand, and industry specific jargon. If it’s not absolutely necessary, don’t use it. Ultimately, storytelling is a dynamic process, one that constantly evolves as the story is embraced and evangelized by audiences. When I used to explain my parents’ research to people, I always took a moment to ask people about their own interests and experiences, trying to find some common language. Healthcare is no different. It struggles under the weight of its own lexicon, unable to create a story people want to listen to. But when we take a moment to identify the main character, contextualize the data, and prioritize language, we’re able to create a story — a narrative — that everyone wants to be a part of. Ari Mostov is an award-winning entertainment producer turned healthcare narrative strategist. Her strategic narrative and engagement designs improve outcomes for health seekers all over the world. Learn more at www.wellplay.world