Storytelling: Get Out of Your Head and Into the Story
Working in health communications is challenging. It’s a regulated and traditionally risk-averse industry. The science can be complex and the issues are often serious.
On the flip side, working in health communications is fascinating and fulfilling. In talking with colleagues through the years, many chose this profession because of a personal experience or because they want to be part of a community working hard to improve healthcare for others.
At some point, this combination leaves many in health PR feeling stifled and fatigued:
- Creativity is backburned or diluted after making its way through legal, regulatory and medical reviews.
- The process overshadows the strategy. We’re on the frontlines of correcting news coverage, managing crisis situations and blunting the competition, while our marketing/advertising peers seem to have all the fun.
- Messaging and content over-index on mechanics and function—it’s health after all—at the expense of emotion and that all-important connection to the audience.
One way to shift out of this mindset is by getting back to basics: storytelling.
As communications practitioners, storytelling is what we do best. I mentioned in my last post that PR—more than advertising—is positioned to unlock stories that uniquely foster relationships, trust and action.
The story comes first. It comes before you wade into the specifics of compliance, channel or measurement. The next time you sit down to write messages, a pitch or social media content, consider this:
- Stories stimulate the brain and can change how we understand information and even how we act on that information: This video on the Future of Storytelling: Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc presented by neuroeconomist Paul Zak explains it. Watch the first three minutes.
- Every piece of content should stimulate the senses: The brain can’t necessarily distinguish between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Just because you’re writing a press release doesn’t mean you can’t write vividly to draw in the reader. Even the seemingly mundane milestone can drive the bigger brand story, grabbing your audience and compelling them to feel a certain way or act on shared purpose.
- Stories aren’t static: We develop a master narrative or message matrix to help our clients tell their story in a relatable way. If we throw it out the window when we activate the communications plan, we’ve failed and forgotten the whole point of a narrative. Storytelling is sequential. Each message builds and supports the next. While we’ll always have to write content around speaking events and awareness days, the dates are not the story. Set yourself free to think in narratives, not posts.
- The North Star is the litmus: Every company or brand should have a “North Star”— It’s a few words that capture the brand mission and aspiration. The North Star guides all editorial and creative; it creates consistency. If you find yourself writing aimlessly or developing a generic communications plan, the North Star is your anchor. If you’re without a North Star, try to identify it based on the company mission and business objectives. It doesn’t have to be perfect or catchy.
Bruce Mau wrote this in relation to event design, but I believe it’s medium agnostic:
“What we are really trying to produce is memories—we are designing deep emotional connection to ideas, products and brands… We design the narrative arc of the experience as a story with the guest as our protagonist. We design for action, allowing our guest to do things, feel things, make things and change things, not only to look at things.”
Health, and committing to making people and communities healthier, is an amazing purpose. Don’t neglect the power of story to connect, inspire action and change behavior.