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The Art of Effective Communication

Health Sciences & Management Can be Stories

Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher discusses how health communciation is storytelling, and how these intersections between health communication and storytelling can help patients and healthcare workers. Learn more at the Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health MOOC.

Excerpt From


So, in this section of the course, we're talking about stories. But, my guess is that some of you are thinking, ''I don't tell stories,'' but you do, every day. Let me give you some examples. A doctor tells a story actually, when she tells a patient that he faces increased risk of diabetes but that that risk could be lowered through dietary change and so that therefore, the doctor is going to recommend a particular approach, that's actually a story. Here's another story. A statistician tells a story, when she describes how the field used to analyze particular types of data using one method but now a better method is known and therefore, other analysts should consider using this new method. Here's one about a manager. A manager tells a story when she notes that the performance of the particular unit has been quite good on most measures but not as good on another important measure. So, therefore, she's going to focus employee attention on improving that area. Here's one last one. A scientist tells a story, whenever she describes how our understanding of the world, it seemed to make sense before, but there's new data that suggests that our previous model is actually incomplete or maybe it's even wrong. Therefore, a new theory or paradigm is needed to understand the world. These are all stories, they all share the common structure of the narrative arc. Now, there are many descriptions of the story arc. I'm not going to try and cover all of them. One old one is from Hegel back in the 1800s, he described it as their thesis, antithesis, which creates tension because it contrasts with the thesis, and then synthesis, which resolves the tension. This structure isn't artificial. In fact, it's the natural way that human beings put information together to make sense of it. That's why human beings naturally tell stories. Now, what is artificial, however is the way that academics have learned to write journal articles. Ever heard this structure, introduction, methods, results, conclusions? These sections are classically used to write journal articles and they're descriptive. I know what an introduction section is, I know what a method section is, I know what a results section is, I know what a conclusion is. But there's no tension and sometimes if you don't embed a narrative arc into this, we end up understanding what was done but not really knowing the point. We know that a certain result was gotten and that we conclude that this fact exists but we don't actually know the point. No matter what it is you're communicating, what you need to do is to recognize the narrative structure in whatever it is you're trying to get across. Then, once you recognize that structure, to build the communication around that structure. It's a scaffold, and you can hang pieces of information on that structure. Doing so, will make it easier for people to understand and remember because what they'll remember is the structure not necessarily the specific points. Now, don't take my word for it. In organizational science, Stephen Denning, who used to be a major executive in the World Bank, he wrote a book called The Springboard. How storytelling ignites action in knowledge era organizations and he's been going around for years telling the power of story to evoke organizational change. In science communication, Randy Olson, who's a former tenured marine biology faculty member, wrote a book, he's written actually several books, but one called Houston, We Have a Narrative. They both basically say the same thing. If you want to change minds or change behavior through communication, you need stories. Science is already a story. Management is already a story. Education is already a story. If you recognize the underlying structure of what it is you're trying to communicate, you just need to learn how to tell them as stories to help you achieve your goals.