What’s your story? It may not seem like it, but anytime anyone asks about your work, your life, your experiences, that’s what they want to hear. People learn through stories. Stories take mundane facts and turn them into emotional feelings that have the power to motivate people to action, or just make sure they remember you. That’s why we tend to remember speeches or presentations where the presenter relayed a story.
So what does this have to do with healthcare, clinics, and growth? That’s what we’ll look at below.
The Power of Stories
If you do a quick google search on the power of stories, you’ll quickly get inundated with countless articles, videos, and resources. Countless research articles, studies, and data show that stories have a unique ability to create emotional responses. Just check out this video of a Tedx Talk, where the speaker describes a situation where a researcher bought 200 items for around $120. The researcher then had 200 people write stories about each item and posted each on one ebay.com. That initial $120 turned into $8000 dollars! The items didn’t change. They were still cheap trinkets. What did change? The story attached to them changed. And that was all it took for people buying the products to consider them more valuable.
Something about adding a story to those cheap trinkets influenced the buyers in such a way, as to cause them to pay more than the trinket was actually “worth” (the entire subject of value could be it’s own article or book).
How Do Stories Work?
The obvious questions that arises from this information is, “how do stories create those emotional responses?” As described in this article, even though technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, our brains remain relatively unchanged (from an evolutionary perspective). That means we still process information in the same way we have for thousands of years.
So what does that have to do with stories? Well, stories play —and have played— an important role in helping us order information, think, and create connections between ideas & situations. Our brains naturally create schemas, mental maps, or scripts with information and situations we experience. This helps us explain how things work, make or justify decisions, understanding and teach values. It even helps us create our identities and understand our place in the world.
Part of the underlying reason for this revolves around the fact that human beings seek predictability. Stories, or narrative structure, provides a predicable and familiar way of processing information. We can tolerate great swings in emotion, anticipation, or action in stories because we know that resolution follows conflict.
Another interesting fact about stories is that they engage the right brain and reside in our imagination. Our brains process imagined information the same way as real situations. That means stories result in real emotions, a sense of presence, and physiological/behavioral responses. Knowing this should provide some insight as to why stories can be a powerful aid in promoting and growing your healthcare organization, clinic, or business.
What is a Story?
Before we dive into using stories to promote and grow your clinic, we must first understand what a story is — and more importantly, what it is not. A story is typically structured with a beginning, middle, and end (no great insight there, right?). Stories convey experiences, emption, and communicate some change or transformation. That is how they differ from anecdotes. Anecdotes may be emotional and they may have a beginning, middle and end. But anecdotes don’t necessarily need to convey a transformation or change. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what makes a story a good or memorable story.
Elements of Good Stories
Since stories help us attach emotional responses to information and ideas, good stories will be emotional. The engage the listener’s emotions. Good stories are also memorable and cause the listener to care and connect with the story teller. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, stories tend to be more memorable when they are simple and concrete. This drives home the point that effective stories are vehicles to communicate simple, human experiences.
Every good story contains some common elements. This means that, when you understand those elements, you can use them to create your own memorable stories. Good stories tend to involve some element or risk, or stakes. There is something to be gained or lost in the story. They also involve some sort of personal reflection or action on the part of the story teller. This can be done by using truthful and specific situations and examples, which also adds authenticity and vulnerability to the story (making it more human). Above all, good stories are universal. They speak to something greater than the storyteller, a higher purpose or revelation. For more on this topic, check out Robin Gelfenbien’s work. I attended a workshop she put on that was all about creating meaningful stories that was very insightful and motivating.
How to Structure Your Stories
The way we build or structure our stories can be the difference between impact and a dud. So how do we build or structure our stories to be emotional, memorable, and impactful? The answer is to follow the common 5-part story structure. I don’t quite know who came up with this story structure, but it is so common that I’m sure you’ve heard of it (or at least recognize it once it’s described).
The 5-part story structure goes like this:
- There is a setup or intro
- An inciting incident occurs (something happens)
- Some action occurs (plot, journey, etc.)
- There is a main event (or climax)
- Then there’s resolution.
Let’s break each down to better understand how they come together to create a compelling story:
The setup plays the role of introduction. Characters are introduced, along with the situation, environment, or context. A simple setup that introduces the main character (usually the person telling the story), the point of the story, and even lays the groundwork for an exciting incident.
The Inciting Incident
Once the setup is out of the way, we move quickly to the inciting incident. This is usually quick and moves us onto the journey or action. It usually starts with something like, “Then, one day…” The inciting incident happens quickly and leaves the lister “hooked”, wanting to learn more.
The Rising Action
The rising action plays the role of “body” or “main plot” of the story. Depending on the type of story you are building, it could be the hero’s journey, rags to riches, overcoming the monster, a story of rebirth, or a quest. This portion of the story gives all the meat of the story. It answers some questions, presents obstacles or opportunities, and leads into the main event.
During the rising action, or plot, the main character (ideally, you) makes choices, faces obstacles, and —most importantly— has to reflect and act. Sometimes, an obstacle requires personal growth, acquiring new skills or knowledge, or taking a certain action. Sometimes opportunities present themselves during the plot. This is what builds the story and makes it interesting.
The Main Event
We naturally expect the action or plot of a story to come to a point, a main event —or climax. This is where the audience discovers whether the main character is successful or not. Questions get answered. It leads into the resolution. The main event brings about a transformation, change, or realization. It could be something like a discovery about yourself or a decision you had to make.
The resolution acts as your conclusion. In this part of the story, you tell what you became (if this is a transformation story). This is the “and they lived happily ever after” part of the story. It answers what happened after —or as a result of— the main event. You can also use this part of the story to share any lessons learned. For example: “And that’s why I always check references before making a hire.”
Making the Connection (Origin Story, Higher Purpose, & Values)
Understanding the basic elements of a good story and how to structure one brings us to the big question: How do we use this information to craft a compelling story for our clinics and organizations? The answer to that question drives to the heart of your clinic or organization. Since stories are tools of communication, you must first figure out what you want to communication and to whom. I tend to make the general suggestion that a clinic or healthcare organization should make an effort at communicating purpose, mission, and values through story. A good option is an origin story.
What is an Origin Story?
Think about your favorite superhero growing up. They all have a “where they come from” story. Usually, the origin story provides some insight to the hero’s past, but —more importantly— it sheds light on that hero’s superpower and mission in life.
A compelling origin story, especially for healthcare providers and organizations, should do three things:
- Provide history or background (context)
- Highlight the superpower or gift (expertise, talent, skills, etc.)
- Explain the higher purpose or mission
Providing background is pretty straight forward. This is the usual history of the organizations, or bio of the clinician. The origin story should (maybe after some inciting incident) connect that clinic or clinician to some superpower. For healthcare providers and organizations, those superpowers could be clinical expertise or skills. And finally, the origin story should tie the context and superpower(s) together with the higher purpose of that organization or clinician.
What is your Higher Purpose?
Now we come to the really important part: the higher purpose. Often referred to as an organization’s “mission”, the higher purpose provides the compelling reason why anyone should care about what you or your clinic does. This is the why that Simon Sinek writes and speaks about. Your clinic’s (or personal) Higher Purpose tells the world (and your potential patients) that you are in this thing for something greater than yourself. It is a mission worthy of calling others to come along side to join a movement.
Ideally, your origin story provides the context behind your higher purpose. For example, your origin story may be how you came choose healthcare and/or rehabilitation as a career. It was through that experience that you discovered your higher purpose of helping others live their best life (or overcome ____ diagnosis), and the only way you could see yourself able to do that was to open up XYZ Health & Wellness Center.
How do your origin story & higher purpose connect you to your audience?
Who is your audience? It is your patients and prospective patients. It also includes referral sources and community or business partners. Your origin story & higher purpose not only need to connect with each other, but they also need to connect with those with whom you are trying to communicate. That may mean crafting a few different versions of your origin story & higher purpose depending on the audience you are communicating with (a potential patient may be moved by something that a referral source doesn’t care about).
When crafting your origin story and connecting your higher purpose, it is important to take into account two questions:
- What is the feeling you want your story to elicit in your audience?
- What is the impact you want to make?
Those questions change depending on the audience. For example, for prospective patients, we want to elicit feelings that cause them to book appointments or call to inquire about our services. What are those feelings? It could be feelings of pain (if they’re in pain), hope (that recovery is possible), or empowerment (that they can take control of their lives/future). The impact we want to make typically involves some decision, or motivation to make a decision. That decision is usually to reach out to our clinic for a consult or to inquire about what we can do for them. For referral sources, we use different emotions and desire different impacts.
Stories act as a great tool to communicate ideas, elicit emotional responses, and motivate people to action. Healthcare organizations, clinics, and even individual providers should take the time to craft a compelling story that connects to some higher purpose or mission that is compelling enough to motivate all stakeholders to take action. It is important to follow a common framework for constructing stories that is simple, concrete, and emotional. The story should follow a simple structure that we all expect of stories (a setup, incident, action, climax, and resolution). Above all, healthcare providers and organizations should tailor their stories to be most effective for the specific audience they are trying to communicate with.
Do you share your origin story with patients, potential patients, or referral sources? Have you seen increased engagement through telling stories? Share any additional resources that you found helpful in the comments below!
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