February 13, 2014

The Art of Storytelling in Health Care Branding

We are not healthcare marketers. We don’t work in hospital advertising. We are storytellers.

It’s not written on your business card but the title of storyteller is actually an honor within the human experience. From the tribal campfires of our ancestors to the silver screen of today, inspiring stories ripple through our DNA. Even when we sleep, our minds dream in stories.

Storytelling raises your brand above the blare of healthcare media noise, inspiring your audience to action. Outside the healthcare marketing world, leading brands like Nike have been storytellers for years. In healthcare branding, storytellers are beginning to understand that the quest for cures, longevity and hope offer stories far more compelling than a trendy shoe. A few healthcare brands are using storytelling techniques with sophistication well beyond the patient testimonials seen in conventional hospital advertising.

The power of storytelling is not limited to brand messaging. The best stories are often found within your service lines. If you look a little closer, they often reveal the genuine character of your brand.

In Connecticut, St. Vincent’s Medical Center looked closer at their cancer patients. One was spotted delivering pies to his caregivers. Another was a familiar face, because she was choosing Saint Vincent’s yet again to fight her third serious health threat. One patient was also a nurse there. Another was a local TV personality. All patients have a rich, unique story.

Instead of hastily throwing them in front of an audience as solo acts, their doctors were interviewed concurrently with patients. Together, their interviews uncovered authentic human themes—that when structured properly—reveal the genuine emotions of St. Vincent’s brand. Take a look and then we’ll discuss the crucial storytelling elements they captured.


:30 St. Vincent’s Cancer Care-Patients


:30 St. Vincent’s Cancer Care-Clinicians


St. Vincent’s Cancer Care: Web Video

When patients and doctors are weaved together, it produces a compelling brand story


Even in the small canvas of time these productions were allowed, we see some of Aristotle’s essential elements of drama:

Conflict: Fear is the antagonist, faced by characters we easily identify and sympathize with.

Plot: Sharp doctors using the power of medicine, teaming with brave patients to fight the fear.

Spectacle: The musical score, camera angles and effects synthesize with the plotline and theme.

Language: Notice the repeated use of words (by both doctors and patients) such as: hope, trust, care, faith, hands and minds. Rather than speaking them with a “clean” canned delivery, authentic emotion is seen in the quiver of a lip or a long reflective pause.

Theme: Ultimately, we see our characters rise together to defeat fear and replace it with hope.

It’s tough to follow Aristotle, but here are a few other important things to remember about storytelling:

  • Find your stories: Think of yourself as a hungry reporter with an ear for leads and an eye for characters. Look closer.
  • Compare your story to other genres: I often frame healthcare stories in the realm of science fiction, where man faces his fear of an unknown future but conquers it with technology and his best ancient, human attributes.
  • Technology is only a tool in the story: Hon Solo made the Millennium Falcon cool. Otherwise, it’s just a ship. Your rival might have a da Vinci®  system too, so show your doctor’s joy in using it.
  • It’s a team effort: A single author does not own the best stories. Embrace the value of all your internal and external teammate contributions.
  • Use tact: Obviously, patients and doctors are human beings. Let them tell their story in their own authentic voice to inspire others.

I’m proud to be a storyteller. Dr. Glen Reznikoff says it perfectly in the Saint Vincent’s web video:

“I think it is a privilege to be able to do what I do. To hear these patient’s stories, to be able to see them in a very fragile setting and then be able to build them up and see them get stronger.”

I’m not a surgeon. However, the stories I tell might inspire a dad to go to a screening or give a mother a little boost of hope for her battles ahead.

Being a storyteller certainly is a privilege. It does make a difference.

In the end, isn’t that what our jobs are truly about?

Further Research:

In his book The Story Telling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall provides scientific evidence as to why human beings are so receptive to stories and how our obsession with them actually inspires us to take action. Drawing on research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and psychology—Gottschall’s work is highly entertaining and offers an inspiring path forward for healthcare storytellers.

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