For Physicians Thought Leadership

Embrace the Power of Storytelling to Advance Science and Medicine

This Clinician’s View opinion piece is written by Karen Corbin, PhD, RD, Principal Investigator at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute.

Karen D. Corbin, PhD, RD
Karen Corbin, PhD, RD
Principal Investigator, AdventHealth Translational Institute

We’ve all been there …

You’re at an annual medical conference. It’s the third presentation of the day. The lights dim. A PowerPoint slide illuminates the giant screen in front of you. It is crammed full of charts and tables and paragraphs of text — and much of the type is too small to decipher. Then the speaker, a well-respected clinician and expert in their field, begins reading through the slide — data point by data point, word for word. Your mind begins to wander. You scroll through the new texts and emails on your phone, pondering your growing to-do list. You start thinking about lunch or how to sneak in a quick workout before dinner. The research in this presentation may be groundbreaking. It could even spark new questions and ideas directly related to your own patients or research. However, these opportunities will never transpire because understandably, the message was lost in translation.

After more than 25 years navigating the worlds of healthcare and science, first as a practicing registered dietitian and now as a clinical research scientist, I’ve discerned a fundamental gap in translating scientific ideas into solutions that could transform healthcare: the inability to deliver information in a way that is engaging, impactful, relevant and inspires action. I believe the solution lies in a tool as old as time: storytelling.

Even with data-driven, research-based topics, stories are important. A good story sparks curiosity. It gives context to facts and numbers and makes the information presented more meaningful, memorable and understandable. As a new year begins and the challenges we face continue to grow, I believe it is the perfect time for scientists and clinicians to learn how to become powerful storytellers. And just like good science, effective stories begin with some basic questions.

The “Who” — Less Me, More We

The standard academic box often pushes us to think mainly about one person: me, me, me! How do I advance my own ideas? Where should I seek grants? What can I publish and where can I present to forward my own career? Too often this leads us to approach storytelling with an inward focus. We create presentations based on the data we feel is most important, and we shove as much of that data as possible in the time allocated for our talks.

What if we flip this approach and put the audience first? Who are they? What do they know? How do they connect?

Telling our stories with an outward focus helps convey our ideas in more impactful ways that inspire people to think and act. This approach helps remove barriers to medical and scientific progress, allowing us to arrive at new solutions faster. It pushes science out of the dark corners of our labs and into the hands of those who make decisions, increasing our chances of reaching the next member of our research team, an investor for our next study or even our next boss.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Take the time to investigate your audience and their needs.
  • Synthesize your mountains of data into facts that are meaningful based on those needs.
  • Consolidate, simplify and clearly define your main message.
  • Be prepared to explain your work in a different way that will resonate with that specific audience.
  • Support your presentation with a list of references for audience members to dig deeper.
  • Encourage dialogue.

The “What” — Finding a Common Thread

Think about your favorite childhood story or work of literature. I bet it was crafted around a memorable, overarching theme that was thoughtfully woven throughout the book. My favorite childhood stories (that continue to be my favorite to this day) are the stories of the heroine Wonder Woman. The common thread for problem solving and “catching the bad guy” was to handle the situation with strength, confidence and most importantly, humanity and compassion. Little did I know that my childhood heroine, who happened to be highly educated as a scientist, among other things, had the characteristics that I think are most important to embody as a scientist.

Scientific storytelling is the same. Identify a common thread that will provide focus to your message — a tether or through line to connect the individual elements and give them meaning. This will help maintain your audience’s attention, guiding them along throughout your presentation.

The “How” — Essential Elements of a Great Story

You know your audience, and you’ve identified a theme. Now it’s time to creatively craft your story through words and visuals. Here’s the good news: both scientific research and storytelling contain many of the same fundamental building blocks. We just call them different things:

  1. Purpose = Conflict — What drives your story? What is the problem you are trying to solve and why?
  2. Design/Methods = Setting/Character Development — Paint the picture. What are the main scientific approaches (characters) used to tackle the problem? Introduce them, describe them and help us understand why we should care about them.
  3. Findings/Results = Plot/Story Arc — What happened? What did you learn? Highlight the newest, most interesting findings. Make sure the visuals you choose enhance your message and don’t simply repeat it. Slides should only serve as a guide to the spoken word.
  4. Conclusion/Discussion = Resolution — Emphasize your main takeaway message or recommended solution and invite further thought and dialogue. Often the best stories don’t end on the last page. They make the reader or audience think: “What can I learn from this and apply to my own life or the lives of the patients I serve? What do I still want to know?” Perhaps someone in your audience can contribute to the sequel or spin-off. Or perhaps you have inspired them to write their own new story.

The “Why” — Connect to Collaborate

The most important reason for incorporating a storytelling approach is that science and medicine do not occur in a vacuum. In this era of global reach and transdisciplinary science/medicine, we must communicate in a way that inspires connections, sparks fresh ideas and accelerates innovation from discovery to implementation as a care paradigm.

Scientific knowledge is powerful. It has the power to heal, the power to provide hope, and the power to solve the most important problems facing our society. However, with great power, comes great responsibility. As scientists and medical professionals, we have a duty to share what we know, to lay the foundation for future exploration and to empower society to make better decisions that will improve their lives. I believe crafting compelling stories about our work is how we can most effectively achieve these goals. Will you join me on this journey?

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