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Medical Storytelling: The Human Element in Hard Science

In this episode, Todd Wright and Chris Ryan discuss the science behind medical storytelling and how the agency works with clients to make the data memorable.

It’s quite common for human brains to search for story in everything. Avant Healthcare puts this basic truth into practice by using medical storytelling to ensure audiences connect with data. Making science resonate—and linger in the mind—means crafting a narrative that elevates the human element behind the facts.

Podcast Transcript

Dan Limbach: Welcome to the PharmaVOICE Webcast Network. In this episode, I speak with Todd Wright, Senior Vice President, and Chris Ryan, Group Creative Director at Avant Healthcare. We discuss the science behind medical storytelling and how the agency works with clients to make data memorable. I'm Dan Limbach, your host and producer of the PharmaVOICE Webcast Network.

It's quite common for human brains to search for story in everything. Avant Healthcare puts this basic truth into practice by using medical storytelling to ensure audiences connect with data. Making science resonate and linger in the mind means crafting a narrative that elevates the human element behind the facts. So let's get into the discussion. Welcome to the podcast program, Todd.

Todd Wright: Thanks for having us, Dan.

Dan Limbach: You're welcome. And, Chris, it's great to have you as well.

Chris Ryan: Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Dan Limbach: So, Todd, what do you mean by medical storytelling?

Todd Wright: Basically we fuse high science with high emotion to create high impact. So when you think about medical storytelling, think about it as being the ability to align high science with deep strategy and then weaving them into a compelling convincing and, of course, always compliant narrative. The goal is to really drive behavioral change for HCP. So in order to do this, we need to understand the current beliefs of our HCP customers and how those need to evolve, given the brand objectives.

From this, we get a good idea of what barriers may be in place that we need to address, and here's where the high science comes into play as we find the necessary data to address the barriers, once again, in a compliant fashion. And then the final step is for our creative geniuses to take the high science and create this narrative that when combined provides a lasting and memorable message for our customers, so that when they leave that medical education event they can retain what they've learned.

Dan Limbach: Very good. I want to talk a little bit more about HCP behaviors. How do you change those behaviors using medical storytelling?

Todd Wright: That's a really good question. First off, it's critically important that we deeply understand those individual beliefs that's driving their behaviors. The beliefs, the behaviors, and the barriers are kind of the three key components that we really need to have a good sense of as we're getting started. There are pockets of people out there who believe behaviors can change more quickly than beliefs. This absolutely could be true in some cases; however, we think the likelihood of changing the behavior beyond a temporary trial or an experiment without fundamentally changing the underlying belief is unlikely. So in the end, we're all human, right? No matter how hard we try to filter out biases or intrinsic belief systems, we color how we interpret information. So just to understand someone's belief, we must go beyond the thoughts they express or the assumptions we know they have made based on what they communicate back to us.

By doing this, we also understand how an HCP listening to a specific influencer about certain scientific evidence or data, how that influencer can have the ability to impact their beliefs. Many times, the influencer can help to rearrange the context, is how we like to think about it, around HCP perception of a certain topic. So, if the context can shift, then so can the point of view through which it's seen by that HCP. So once you change the context by providing unbiased information, you can begin to change that belief. So as you're thinking about the new world, the HCP is now able to pull from other information and belief set to form new beliefs. Changing beliefs with a single engagement we know is extremely unlikely, and you got to have multiple touch points and consistent touch points in order to change those beliefs. Explicit education alone cannot address beliefs and barriers even with an influencer providing that source of authority.

More active HCP engagements must bolster that new context. Medical education must move beyond increasing awareness via a series of data points or high science. HCPs need that narrative that I talked about earlier, right, that integrates the data with the education to create a story that marries or combines high science with high emotion that triggers both sides of the brain, the left with the scientific evidence and the right with emotion. And together they can create a more memorable HCP experience that is more likely to stay with that healthcare professional and affect their behavior change.

Dan Limbach: Excellent. So those of us who work in marketing, we're always focused on the message. What's the message? What are the key message points? Chris, is a story different than a message?

Chris Ryan: In short, yes. I'm a writer by background. And so, to me, messages are the building blocks of a story, and we kind of intuitively know that you can't have a story without messages, but you can have the reverse. So in that case, you might have compelling information to share, but in the end, without that compelling narrative, none of it really matters.

A great example I always use is my writing hero, John Steinbeck. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, a lot of other books a lot of us have heard of, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was famous for being able to communicate the entire story contained within his novel on one single index card. He was really known for short declarative sentences, wording concentrated to its absolute essence, and that's what we in our teams in creative, always strive for. We want to tell the beginning, the middle and the end, and when we create those medical stories, even for really complex molecules treating even more complex disease states, we should still be able to engage in that same exercise and succeed. So although story message are different, our stories should be so focused that it's as short as a single message, but without it and without thinking through it to that level, we don't really have much that will interest the medical audience.

I would just add too that compelling science is really helpful for sure, and it should be the center of the story, but it's not enough. So beyond facts, beyond intellect, we have to inspire action, and there's of course a spectrum to all that. So that old "know thy audience," right? We know certain HCP audience segments are very much in that whole, "Just the facts, ma'am," camp, while others you're in for stories with that spirit that blends the science and the narrative together in a really great way. So it's up to us in collaboration with our clients and with each other internally here to find that sweet spot and then plan and execute around it in a way that will best motivate them to consider a different perspective to how they're currently practicing. I call it evidence-based tugging at the heartstrings, if you will.

Dan Limbach: That makes a lot of sense. Todd, what considerations go into finding the right story to deliver those messages and create those actions?

Todd Wright: Dan, short and sweet, it's the data, it's the narrative and it's the emotional hook.

Dan Limbach: Chris, how do you strike the balance between the scientific and the emotional elements of a story?

Chris Ryan: Yeah. That's a really tough challenge. It's a little bit of art and science, but I think it comes back to a mistake that I've certainly made in the past and I think a lot of people in our business do. We ascribe these kind of mystical attributes to HCP audience. The content we create, it's more complex, sure. But at the end of the day, we're still trying to persuade a human being, a consumer of sorts, to think differently about a molecule or disease state, which hopefully will lead them to ultimately act differently. You're going up against a set of ingrained beliefs that you're trying to change or reinforce or even replace, all of which are very difficult. But to do that, you need to capture and keep their attention with that compelling information presented in a dynamic way that resonates really well with them. And, again, that's self-evident but also very much easier said than done. It's easy to forget sometimes when you get too far into those scientific weeds.

Many pharma clients had previously considered a storytelling approach to be too unscientific, maybe too saccharine for delivery of medical messages, but I think what we've done over the years, is really helped bring them around to seeing that the heart really can help engage the brain, figuratively speaking, of course. I wouldn't go up against a cardiologist or a neurologist on that statement. But every dot of ink, that's the point, every snippet of audio, every data point, every heart string you tug at must be in strict service of the story you're trying to tell, and if not, it needs to be stripped out, of course.

So the rational is important, but you cannot forget the emotional. One fuels the other and vice versa. And so, one final point I would add to that too is that with increased access to data that we're all experiencing, one paradox is that when people are presented with too much data, there's that risk that they're going to be overwhelmed, paralyzed, and tune out and then not make a decision. So if you layer on top of that a lackluster presenter, which we've all experienced once or twice in our life, a lackluster presentation or facts presented not in a story or narrative form, you've got a whole bunch of drooping eyes. And, again, back to that idea that HCPs are humans just like the rest of us.

Dan Limbach: Indeed. So we have the messages, which are the building blocks, and those are woven into a narrative, which becomes the story. But really in the end it's all about the experience of the viewer or the listener. So once you have the story, Chris, how do you create that experience?

Chris Ryan: Yeah. As I stated before, the science is really the center of everything. Without it, we don't really have anything to say that's worth listening to. So that's always the foundation and the center of everything that we do, but in addition to having the right story, that's only half the battle. It needs to be listened to and found and heard, and so those right messages laddering up to that right story also need the right audience. Whatever that story is that we're telling for whichever segment we're telling it to, it needs to be not annoying. It needs to be efficient. It needs to be presented the way that they want it. In some cases, that's us pushing something out to them because they've opted in. In other cases, it's making it as absolutely convenient as possible for them to pull from us in many different ways.

And so we know and we've learned, with the advent of multichannel, that trying to give them all of the story in one bite in one place at one time is a really, really ineffective and inefficient use, not only of resources but of our clients' time and money too. So what we like to think of it as the non-linear sort of journey where however you pick up the pieces in whatever combination of push and pull, you're going to get that complete story in a way that really leaves you with a good feeling of knowing that you got it the way that you wanted to get it. And so, that helps clear away all the distractions of, "Why didn't this email work?" or "Why didn't I get this other thing?" or "I can't go to that 8:00 dinner." It's just content in its purest form in the way that you wanted to get it, and that helps really focus the message. I also like to say that you can be all things to all people if you do know your segments really well. Some want a wide, very cursory look, some want a deep dive, and all of those things should be accommodated. If we're doing our jobs right, we're able to do that. And so to create the optimal experience overall in addition to that whole multichannel play, you need to engage multiple senses. People need to experience your content, not just read it, not just hear it, not just see it.

Dan Limbach: Well, this all makes a lot of sense and I'm definitely buying into this concept, but really the bottom line is does it work? Todd, how do you measure if storytelling is working and if it's even better than other more traditional methods of delivering information to HCPs?

Todd Wright: Great question, Dan. Measurement obviously is extremely important, right? So depending on the channel, whether it's live or non-personal, we'll measure our efforts differently. For those non-personal activities, we use more of the traditional approach, capturing clicks, time on site, measurements like that. But if we're evaluating a live channel, we like to leverage real-time survey data from our participants. So we may ask our audience prior to beginning a program about their current beliefs as it relates to treatment choice or treatment plan of the particular disease state that we're focusing on.

We then go through the program where we're creating experience that Chris talked about. We're engaging them. It's not a didactic presentation. We're infusing all of our components of medical storytelling to create the experience. We ask them a series of similar questions post-program to see how that one interaction performed as it relates to behavior change. What we like to measure and what we like to get us a pulse on is if a physician experiences one of our live events where we are fully executing medical storytelling, have we changed the way they approach treatment choice? Are they now considering possibly a different approach to the treatment plan based off the answers they gave us before beginning that live event?

Now, we certainly know that truly creating behavior change requires multiple exposures to the data and to the story. But these are just a couple of ways whether we're thinking about non-personal or live where we start to understand exactly how our storytelling is working.

Chris Ryan: Yeah, and I would just add too on top of that, that with the full core press that we're trying to do in medical education, it's really hard to isolate one event or one tactic to be able to measure behavior change or whatever other metric you're looking at. However, I do think within this mix too there's something to be said for the anecdotal. We're helping our customers who are interacting with their customers at congresses, for example. And so, if they get a KOL coming up to them and saying, "This content was really fantastic," that goes a long way too. Certainly, it's [inaudible 00:14:14] one or two or three, but I think it should also be considered in the mix, maybe not as much, but definitely so.

Todd Wright: Great point.

Dan Limbach: Well, it sounds like you've got all the bases covered. Todd and Chris, I want to thank you for sharing your thought leadership and expertise with us today.

Todd Wright: Thank for the time, Dan.

Chris Ryan: Yeah, thanks so much. It was pleasure.

Dan Limbach: And that will do it for this episode. For more information about medical storytelling, visit their website at, and don't forget to check out our other podcasts, white papers, webinars, case studies, videos, and more at Until next time, I'm Dan Limbach.

This 2018 production is the property of PharmaLinx LLC. It may be shared freely in its entirety, but may not be edited or altered from this published form.

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