Back to Basics: Storytelling

Indonesian shadow playThis new series on Pixels & Pills will focus on the importance of revisiting traditional ways of thinking.

By DJ Edgerton (@wiltonbound)

Recent years have seen a return to alternative medicines once scoffed at by Western physicians. Treatments like chiropractic and acupuncture are covered by managed care that were once denounced. What else deserves a second look? How else can we improve the future by revisiting the past?

Let’s begin with storytelling. Not at all what you think of when you think of medicine, is it? But it may have more in store for us than you might think.

There’s a cultural movement toward storytelling in America, as exemplified by national oral-history projects like StoryCorps. Most memorization aids work by teaching you how to create a rhythm or a narrative to remember instead of the more difficult-to-process information you’re working with. It’s natural for us when we play with children or, as with memorization, when we work with our own brains. We are wired for storytelling.

Oddly, though, for an industry so focused on how we work, it’s never been how pharma has communicated with its audiences. Oh, they may have given it lip service, with a few DTC ads featuring cozy pasta-sharing girlfriends or deep parental conversations. But in the main, pharma communication has been didactic.

One noteworthy exception to this is Fard Johnmar’s Path of the Blue Eye project, which has melded social media with graphic novel storytelling to create a resource of information and conversation.

But the larger exceptions in healthcare come in medical school. The prestigious Columbia University actually has a whole program called Narrative Medicine, in which students learn how to go beyond taking a case history, to get the full story from their patients. There’s even a specific monthly workshop in Narrative Oncology.

So clearly, the rationale for its use in healthcare is justifiable. Beyond that, though, storytelling has value from a commercial standpoint. Think of all the brands whose mythology you know. Apple, Microsoft, Nike – you know how they got started, you know the geeky young entrepreneur who started it all. But who knows how Pfizer got started?

Consumer product companies know mythmaking. Pharma companies don’t bother. Physicians appreciate the power of hearing and telling stories. Pharma companies don’t bother.

How can you build brand loyalty if nobody knows what the brand stands for? How can you have conversations with your customers if you’re not listening?

Happily, there’s a very easy path to take. Video. Video is such a popular medium online because it engages its audience. We could go all Marshall McLuhan on why that happens, but we’ll spare you. The point is, even the most boring video has you more in its thrall than the same information on a page of text.

Pharma has the rationale for patients. It has the rationale for business. It has the means. Why aren’t we telling more stories?



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