The Power of Telling Stories

The Power of Telling Stories

There is a new, increasingly popular mode of communication: storytelling. Structuring information in the form of a narrative is a more recently adopted trend that has proven successful for recruiters and potential hires alike.

A few years ago, storytelling only showed up in the “job descriptions” of parents; now you find it regularly and frequently in job description ranging from communications writers for medical device companies to content developers for the latest AI start-up. And not just storytellers, they have to be brilliant, born, natural or passionate.

As a scientist, one tends to be quick in dismissing storytelling as the latest fad that will soon blow over and then we can all go back to time-proven way of communicating facts and data in the form of Powerpoint presentations and scientific publications. After all, as scientists, we have been trained to prioritize phenomena and rational thought over emotions and the anecdotal evidence found in stories.

However, storytelling seems to be more than a fad, dreamt up by communications gurus to make some quick consulting dollars. Narration, as a way of engaging customers and partners, such as healthcare providers and KOLs, appears to be here to stay.

What makes stories so compelling

Stories are used to convey messages through an individual’s experience. Their power lies in the fact that the audience can relate to and identify with the story both intellectually and emotionally, which can make them highly persuasive. From a scientist’s point of view this is exactly why stories are flawed: single cases, precisely that of the protagonist of the story, are given too much weight, and anecdotal evidence plays an outsized role in analyzing evidence – a very unscientific way of thinking that ignores the breadth of data by focusing on a selected one or few.

That begs the question of whether storytelling is at all appropriate in the context of scientific communication.

The answer is easy if the audience is the general public: narratives can be an extremely effective way of engaging and motivating people to learn about scientific facts and maybe even influence behavior. The approach presents somewhat of a paradox, however, as it uses a fundamentally unscientific method of communication to persuade the audience to rely on science rather than anecdotal evidence to inform their decision making. One way of resolving this paradox is by using a narrative to prove the value of the scientific method in the context of the story.

Stories for Scientists and Healthcare Professionals?

However, what if the audience is scientifically and medically trained? What if your role is to be a scientific peer, somebody whose credibility and job ultimately depends on being seen as an unbiased expert - not as somebody who tells engaging stories? In short, is this relevant for an MSL?

There is little written about using stories to convey science to scientists or medical professionals. One article encourages scientists to communicate “your research in style” but is short on specifics and examples that would illustrate just what “ … it is vital to make the action of the research story clear” would entail in real life.

So, should we forget about that whole storytelling thing and leave it to those who sell the latest tech gadgets, luxury vacations, or want to raise money for their causes?

That would mean to ignore what we now know to be a powerful communication tool.

So, the question becomes: is there is a way to integrate the power of storytelling into scientific communication without compromising the science? The Stockholm Environmental Institute thinks so and describes it as follows:

Science communication often takes the form of summaries of scientific outputs. These are often designed and structured in a similar way to scientific papers. Our article suggests instead a structured approach to using storytelling so that (i) the research is better informed by, and grounded in, the reality of local communities and stakeholders, and (ii) the results are presented in a way that engages and empowers the end users.

~ Anneli Sundin, SEI

While stakeholders are different for a Swedish environmental institute and a medical science liaison the basics apply to both: “contextual narratives” that highlight the importance of the research/data for stakeholders, e.g. patients can be a lot more engaging than presenting the same data out of context.

Storytelling is as old as humankind and somehow still the latest big thing in communication. How exactly storytelling can be used in communication between scientists is still unclear. What is clear, however, is that storytelling is a powerful way to engage humans – and scientists, after all, are humans as well.

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