What’s your story?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 12:28 PM
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Kate Alfano, CMS contributing writer

Developing stories that engage and move

Effective physician leaders – from those in formal positions of authority to those simply leading patient change – understand the power of stories. Leaders must inspire a vision to move a group of disparate people in the same direction. This is most effectively accomplished with a narrative, said Aaron Templer, an independent consultant who creates brand strategies and marketing and communications plans. “They connect us; they bring us together. We know that this is something that bonds us as human beings. We come together over narratives to create bonds and to understand the human condition.”

The reason stories move people to action better than facts and data is because they engage the brain in more regions than simple data processing. “When you receive data, you interpret it, you make meaning of it in one part of the brain, but when you listen to stories it engages multiple parts of the brain,” he said. “Your brain is an active participant when you listen to stories. It’s not just a passive interpreter of information.”

Listeners pay attention to stories because they become part of the action. “If I’ve got a goal or a vision that I want you all to follow it’s much better if you all have some sort of buy-in,” Templer said. “Better yet, if I can tell a story and make your brain feel that it is your goal or your vision, it is all the more effective.”

Admittedly some physicians find it difficult to use stories to convey information as they were trained to rely on scientific data and ignore anecdotes. But having data to support the story makes it that much more powerful, particularly as physicians deal with objective criteria in the face of irrational behavior. “This is your world: People who don’t eat right, who don’t use condoms, who share needles when they know they shouldn’t and you’re blue in face trying to get them to stop. Stories are the way around this.”

That’s why, Templer said, the skill of storytelling should be honed and developed – just like any other leadership skill. Powerful stories require thought and are created with intention.


Templer presented a simple structure for stories that will meet most storytellers’ needs. The first piece of a good story is the context, which develops the important parts of the story: Where and when the story takes place, economic conditions, and the identities of the villain and the main character. “We need to know what the main character wants. Without that we don’t have anything to root for.”

After the context is established comes action. Storytellers typically make the mistake of jumping directly to the action but taking time to set up the context around action creates a more logical path for the listener. Finally comes the result, which provides the listener with something from which to learn and change.

“This is a basic and simple way to structure a story and if you can have those elements you’re onto something pretty powerful,” Templer said.

The four truths

The four truths of the storyteller, developed by film executive Peter Guber, present a strategy to move and captivate people with stories. Guber asserted in the Harvard Business Review that the most effective stories are true to the teller, the audience, the moment and the mission.

To be true to the teller, the teller must bring his or her authentic self to the story; listeners can tell when the teller isn’t truly passionate. And one of the most effective ways to impart authenticity is by showing vulnerability. To be true to the audience, the teller must stop talking about why he or she is great and start talking about the great things he or she will do for the listener. An important part of this truth is finding ways in the story to turn “I” into “we” to pull the audience into the story.

Truth to the moment requires reacting to the audience, being prepared to pivot to adjust the story to their needs. “Being able to pivot is very important, but do prepare,” Templer said. “We need to know that you care enough about your storytelling to give it some thought.” And finally, to be true to the mission means finding and connecting the story to “something larger and bigger than we are.”

Story types

There are five basic story types that leaders use to convey a point. The first is the “Stranger in a Strange Land.” A person has been dropped into a new place, has to learn the norms, language and rules. Some unfriendly locals provide severe challenges until she or he finds a balance between their values and his or her own. These stories are effective in leadership when leading a group through the unknown, inspiring them to persevere and motivating them through the change with the hope that they’ll come out better in the end.

“Rags to Riches” presents an everyday person who beats the odds and takes on a well-established institution with some new technology or good old-fashioned elbow grease to find success. This story type is popular to convey doing less with more, such as in a low budget situation or a resource-constrained environment.

The “Love Story” typically involves two people where one is out of the other’s league, class, group, accepted norms, etc. They pursue their love anyway and are forced apart, but there is forgiveness or reconciliation in the end. “Love stories are very powerful to use when inspiring people to come together, such as through mergers and acquisitions, or to bring together different groups to collaborate that normally don’t work together. The common goal, the common vision or set of values will always prevail.”

The “Tale of Revenge” is less effective in the physicians’ setting but still has applications. In this story type, a morallycentered person works hard and does the right thing but bad things happen and he or she is awakened to the reality that good isn’t always returned. The person finds peace through payback. One application for physicians would be to use a revenge tale in regards to processes and systems, inspiring a group to do the work and overcome the system in the end.

The “Hero’s Journey” is the most common story type: In this tale a person is reluctantly called to action through a transformational event, meets a mentor, faces severe obstacles, almost turns back, but emerges from the other side better and wiser for the journey. Leaders use it when they want to inspire change – not just lead through change.

“Based on the research I’ve read, most leaders who are leading change fail because they fail to recognize that everyone resists change,” Templer said. “We have cognitive biases that keep us rooted in the status quo. When you start to recognize that in the people you’re trying to engage, that’s the first step to inspiring people to get on board. Stories get them started in that process and start to undo the cognitive biases.”

In the end, anyone can use the power of stories to create compelling visions and inspire change behavior. And one doesn’t have to be on top of an organization to do it. “You can step up in whatever your small niche is and start telling stories and start leading people toward a better tomorrow,” Templer concluded.




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