Here are three ways medical practices can use storytelling - with patients and with staff - as a critical communication strategy.
The art of storytelling is often an undervalued and sadly underused skill in a communication skills arsenal. There is much to focus on in a busy medical practice: policies and procedures, billing, staff issues and, of course, providing extraordinary patient care. In the fast-paced environment of our work lives, we forget that telling stories connects and humanizes us.
First, we need to be mindful of how to tell a good story. All stories begin with plot. A compelling story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A frequent comment we hear in our work is, "I don't have time to tell stories." But some of the most vivid stories can be related in a minute or less if the key plot elements are present. Focus on setting the scene for the listener and providing the basic "plot outline" while relaying enough interesting detail so the listener feels as if she or he were there.
Second, by simply using some basic delivery mechanics - namely vocal variety or varying pitch, tone, and volume and captivating your listener - anyone can be a great storyteller.
Once you're able to relate your stories with passion, here are three applications for storytelling we frequently recommend to clients.
1. Meeting with your patients
Oral histories are powerful. Oftentimes, listeners don't recall data, facts, and even outcomes shared during hour-long talks - but they do remember stories.
Put this to use in your own work with patients. There are a multitude of great stories to be told that don't compromise sound boundaries between you and your patients - perhaps an anecdote about a patient who was successful in smoking cessation or meeting fitness goals. Seek to not just "tell" but also show your patients.
2. During community talks
Our own best practice is "Open every talk with a great story." You'll get the attention of your audience and often keep it. Some of the best speeches in history are a number of powerful illustrations woven together by a uniting message.
Consider how you can combine your expertise as a physician with the art of storytelling and you may be surprised at the increased impact of your community outreach efforts.
3. As a staff coaching tool
Stories are equally effective in individual interactions. Institute the "morning huddle" and take 10 minutes a day to share stories with each other, particularly those that reflect the successes and challenges happening in your practice. Hearing each other share sincere anecdotes will strengthen your working relationships and, ultimately, result in more satisfied patients.
Similarly, seek to use storytelling in coaching staff. When considering the same "show not tell" philosophy, you'll realize greater impact in both staff performance and morale.