Scientific Storytelling for Medical Affairs

A few years ago, storytelling was a skill practiced by parents and elementary school teachers, now one finds it in job descriptions ranging from communications writers for medical device companies to content strategists for the latest AI startup, and medical affairs professionals.

Scientists may be quick to dismiss storytelling as the latest fad that will blow over, allowing us all to go back to communicating facts and data in the form of scientific publications, PowerPoint presentations and interactive tools for data visualization. After all, professionals in medicine and science have been trained to prioritize data over the anecdotal evidence of stories.

However, storytelling is more than a fad dreamed up by communications gurus and it is not new either. In fact, storytelling is ancient and predates written language; it involves taking the audience on a journey of imagination that elicits emotions regardless of what is being communicated. Storytelling is fundamental to how people process information and understand reality.

“Stories appear to be a fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical and memorable manner.” — Antonio Damasio, Co-Director Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.1

As such, storytelling is an important tool for all professionals whose job it is to engage others and convey information in a memorable, convincing way and make an impact.

If this sounds like the essence of medical affairs, it’s because conveying information in a compelling and memorable way is exactly what medical affairs does. Making every engagement relevant for healthcare providers and opinion leaders remains one of the basic challenges of this function.

What makes stories compelling and powerful

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.

From a scientist’s point of view, this is exactly why stories are flawed. A single case, specifically that of the protagonist of the story, is given too much weight and anecdotal evidence plays an outsized role — a very unscientific way of thinking that ignores the breadth of data by focusing on a selected one or few.

That begs the question whether storytelling is at all appropriate in the context of scientific and medical 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 even influence behavior. The success of science communicators like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson clearly demonstrates that a well told story can make people remember more about science than a whole year of Chemistry 101 by a smart but boring teacher. If the goal is impact, stories beat data.

Stories for medical professionals?

But what if the audience is scientifically and medically trained? What if your role is to be a scientific peer, somebody whose credibility depends on being seen as a competent, unbiased expert? How relevant is storytelling for medical affairs professionals and especially MSLs?

For starters, any communication by medical affairs needs to be 100% based in science. There cannot be any compromise, no making the reality look a bit better for the sake of a better story. Science is non-negotiable and the only way to win and keep the trust of healthcare professionals.

But data and facts don’t capture the imagination, effective story tellers are able to take that core of data and information and put them in a form that holds the attention of the audience and makes them memorable. Some of the critical elements that makes a good story are:

They have heroes who face challenges which they overcome. Healthcare is full of such stories, HCPs, drugs or patients can be the heroes; previous experiences, access to treatment and care, lack of treatment options, biases or beliefs can be challenges which are overcome and result in a positive impact on patients’ lives.

Good stories are told with the needs of the audience in mind. What the audience, e.g., the HCP, needs might not be exactly the story an MSL wants to tell but if the story speaks to the needs of the audience, it is more impactful and memorable.

Standard stories don’t work. Knowing the audience — is it a physician, specialist, patient, top-tier KOL or local influencer? — and adjusting the story to make it relevant for their context is what makes them impactful. A somewhat narrower carefully targeted story might prove more relevant and impactful than a broad one that tries to engage too many different audiences with different needs.

Storytelling can be used very effectively to communicate with medical professionals without compromising the science. A Swedish study summarizes 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, Stockholm Environmental Institute.2

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

The good news is that healthcare is full of good stories: medical innovations have cured disease, increased life expectancy and saved and improved the quality of the lives of countless people. Those stories are highly relevant and therefore engaging to healthcare professionals.

One challenge is that there are many versions of the same story being told by other people — stories with different characters offering different resolutions to the same challenges. Telling a convincing story in this environment requires a solid foundation of science and a good understanding of the audience, the healthcare provider, key opinion leader or external expert.

Good storytellers are rarely born, storytelling is a skill that can be developed and honed through practice. Medical affairs professionals can tell great personalized stories that are carefully researched using data and digital platforms so that each story can be crafted and adjusted to resonate with the audience.

Stacey Rivkin is Vice President of Client Solutions & Strategy, H1.

References

[1] https://news.usc.edu/90485/belief-in-core-values-triggers-a-default-mode-network-in-the-brain/, accessed 04/12/21.

[2] https://www.sei.org/perspectives/make-science-sticky-storytelling-science-communication-tool/