In the medical communication profession, we tell stories every day. From describing the mode of action of a new drug to running a medical training workshop to revealing the results of a clinical trial, we are all faced with the challenge of translating complex science into learning. We do this by telling stories.

Storytelling is at the core of what we do at Six Degrees Medical, so as part of our internal staff learning program, we recently invited Dr. Mark Lipton, an Associate Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, to come and speak to our team about the art of storytelling. During our session, Dr. Lipton discussed the value of storytelling as a means of engaging an audience, educating them and influencing their behaviour. We thought we’d share with you some of the knowledge that came out of his session.

The relationship between language, thought and behaviour

There is a real difference between writing for the ear and writing for the eye. Walter J. Ong, in his writings on the psychodynamics of orality and literacy, shows that what works in written culture may not work in oral presentation. When writing, we can tell a story that builds and builds to its rising action before it ends; however, those stories are less impactful when relayed orally, because the ear can’t analytically process information as well as the eye can. An oral presentation must be “additive” to be understood, which means that one idea should be added to the next to tell your story; for example, “I saw the pen on the desk and I picked it up and I started writing,” versus, “I saw a pen on the desk, which I decided to pick up, so that I could start writing.”

Verbal presentations should include concrete examples, set a scene and have references that are close to the world of everyday life. Begin a story about the abstract concept of nutrition, for example, by describing the delicious bowl of mixed tropical fruit you ate that morning at the hotel’s buffet. Cold hard facts and statistics don’t have an impact unless they’re framed within a story. Facts can best be recalled within a larger framework of a narrative structure, so it’s important to set a scene and give examples that are relatable when delivering your facts.

To help the listener empathize and engage with your story, artful repetition helps the listener not only grasp the meaning of what you’re saying but it also helps them to feel its impact. Taking a provocative, forceful or agonistic tone also helps to create a participatory response. Stories told in the first rather than the third person remove the objective distance and encourage empathy, further influencing your audience’s thoughts and even their behaviours.

In “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” Benjamin Lee Whorf asserted that the language you use directly affects your audience’s response and behaviour. To demonstrate this, Whorf described a warehouse in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another. The empty drums were more volatile than the full ones, because they still contained the fuel’s highly flammable vapor. Whorf argued that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty, workers handled them less carefully and even smoked in the room with them. The workers’ dangerous behaviour was directly influenced by the language being used to describe the drums, illustrating the importance of choosing precise words when telling your story.

If you want to influence your audience’s perceptions and behaviours, you must create a story in such a way that they encounter a “perceptual hitch.” Perceptions are about making predictions. When the predictions that we make in our perceptions are proven incorrect, we act on the resulting perceptual hitch by modifying and changing our behaviour. To give a concrete, first person example of this, Dr. Lipton referred to the pizza being served during his talk. He said that he didn’t like pizza, but that he understood that his body needed fuel to maintain itself. Since pizza was the only fuel available, he ate it. His original perception, I don’t like pizza, changed to, I need this pizza to maintain my daily life, so he modified his behaviour and ate it.

Plato said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Stories have influence. There is a direct relationship between language, thought and behaviour. In our business, it’s important that we don’t just give data presentations, but that we communicate that data through a story. When we bring in experts like Dr. Lipton to talk to our staff, we are ensuring that our team has access to the latest thinking and approaches. We want to ensure that the stories we help you tell – whether for projects like medical training, investigator training meeting or slide deck development – have the greatest impact on your audience.