September 12, 2015

Interview Essentials for Emotional Storytelling

I’m a healthcare storyteller…and it’s my job to make you cry.

Sure, there is more to it than that. As healthcare marketers we do it all. But when we really make a difference, whether in the form of print advertisements, TV spots or digital campaigns, we’re capturing the emotions of our patients and converting that energy into actions that compel them to protect their lives.

Every story we tell is not an opus of tears—but in almost everything we do there is that one moment on screen, that one sentence on the page, that makes our patient’s stop…and connect with our message.

For storytellers, the basic chemical catalyst of the emotional reaction is the interview. Interviews take many forms. We’re not just talking about the conventional patient testimonial. In a way, you’re interviewing all the time as a healthcare marketer. When you’re sitting across from your chief medical officer with five minutes before a meeting begins—you should be in interview mode, gathering leads that elevate your brand.

Great reporters have essential tools to capture compelling storylines. They are less skillsets and more of a personality—but even these skills can be honed if you focus on them.


Whether it is a patient or a colleague, everyone gets annoyed when you suddenly pour on the sugar because it’s obvious there is something you want. You may be looking for a story or trying to find some edge to a story angle but take the time to have a genuine interest in your interviewee. Dance around the subject a bit to disarm their natural defenses. Earn their trust by showing real interest in the entire person and not just in the information they are holding. When it comes to internal sources, don’t wait to identify story leads to decipher if someone is a source worth cultivating. You may not have any news from one individual but if you know they are unique and have an interesting role at your health system…start building a real relationship with them today.


You won’t always have time to be perfectly prepared to talk to a source but you’ll always want to be as prepared as possible. Maximize the time you have. Technology is a key source for initial insights. A name Google search will yield platforms like WebMD, LinkedIn and social media comments that can glean good initial clues as to the type of person you are reaching out to. Be sure to temper your online research with the reality that this type of information is often incomplete, out-of-date or inaccurate—but it’s often a good start.

Another crucial preparation technique (especially for on-camera interviews with patients) is a casual phone call before your formal interview. This allows you to vet your questions and angles and get a good fix on what type of personality your source has. Are they an introvert or extrovert? What type of speaking patterns do they have and how will you need to mind their cadence of speech on camera? No, e-mail and text does not suffice here. Preparation through e-mail won’t allow you to hear that glint of emotion or a hesitation of words that prove you’re on a track towards something special.


Humility disarms people. When you are honest with your source about the general angle you are taking with a story they can help you sniff it out. Tell them about your challenges with the story and what your objective is. Keep your objective in the big picture. A few weeks ago I had a patient who was very short and abrupt about describing the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is completely understandable. I told her I was prying because ultimately I wanted to capture her pre-cancer mindset. I reminded her that someone out there may be thinking it would never happen to them. They may be thinking that they don’t need a mammogram. I told the patient that we had a chance to connect with that woman out there and protect her. The patient felt good about that reasoning and produced a very candid story about that very trying day.


Stupid Questions: Sometimes we miss the most obvious insights because we don’t ask the stupid questions. While we are experts in our field, we’ll never know what a patient’s individual experience was like—we’ll never be inside the mind of that cardiologist.

Provocative Questions: Especially with doctors, almost everyone has something to say that they won’t reveal without a little permission to “go there” from their interviewer. I had a brain tumor patient once mention in a pre-interview phone chat that everyone was saying she was a hero. There was a sprinkle of annoyance in her tone. A few weeks later I asked her if she thought she was a hero. Her response was very humanizing and approachable. She reminded me that “everyone is always fighting for their life everyday.” It was very genuine and made her even more endearing to the audience.

Gotcha Questions: Obviously you don’t want to start with these types of questions out of the gate but have a few of these ready. In this forum, a gotcha question is something you have that will always give you an emotional response. This is especially effective with physicians. That lab coat is like emotional body armor. You’ll need specialized ammunition to penetrate it and break through their clinical façade. With older physicians, one of my favorites is to ask them what their parents would be most proud of if they were still alive and could watch them work.


When you are in the production phase and cultivating all of your fruit from the interview, your colleagues and superiors are going to pick away at the emotional space and try to cram in colder, less compelling support points. Of course you need to integrate angles such as awards, accreditations and technology but relate them to the emotion of the subject. The cardiologist loves having TAVR because it helps her save high-risk patients and she knows that would make her father proud. The breast cancer patient is relieved that your breast center is highly accredited. Otherwise, they may not have spotted her tumor so early and she would never have seen her daughter graduate from college. It’s your colleague’s job to ensure their clinical areas of expertise are represented. It’s your job to ensure the patient’s emotion is represented. Ultimately it’s the human emotion that is universal, whether you wear a lab coat or not.