By Mary Barlow
SENIOR DIRECTOR OF MEDIA PRODUCTION 

There was a time years ago when I was part of a critical life sciences team working tirelessly on the launch of a first-time medicine that treated a rare, debilitating condition. So rare, in fact, that only 1 in 200,000 people are afflicted with its symptoms, which leave patients bedridden as their condition rapidly deteriorates.

Thanks to this new therapy we were helping to launch, these same patients could live normal lives—as long as they adhered to their treatment regimen. My colleagues and I were keenly aware of the patients and families who would be impacted by our work. We were thrilled the drug was on the road to swift approval under the FDA’s new Fast Track designation. 

After spending 16 months developing the launch training materials, ensuring all subject matter experts weighed in and garnering input from the medical and legal teams, we knew we were ready. The launch meeting was scheduled and carefully planned. We had approvals and arrangements for patients and physician thought leaders to speak as part of general sessions. We were counting down the days. 

Then, just 8 weeks before approval, everything fell through. The FDA found an issue with documentation. The manufacturer pulled out of the investment. And that was it. We were completely deflated. Patients on open label lost hope. The press reports were dismal. It was a failure. 

The need for stories 

Please don’t hate me, but the story I just told you is complete fiction. 

But did I have you there? Did you stick with me until the end? And were you at least a little bit angry when I told you it wasn’t true? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I’ve done my job as a storyteller.

As in fiction, good storytelling is a vital means of communicating with your audience in marketing and business. In marketing, good stories engage customers. In business, they engage decision makers. In both cases, the purpose of storytelling is to hold your audience’s attention, and when done well, to have them rooting for the main character to fulfill their quest. When developing stories for marketing and business audiences, it’s important to understand that this main character may be a brand or a project just as easily as a patient, a customer, or a company team or colleague.  

Elements of storytelling 

At Encompass, we’re often asked to help our clients articulate the story behind a critical project through a presentation or video. When creating these stories, we depend on the tried-and-true elements of storytelling that consistently build a captivating narrative. Consider the 7 storytelling components below as you build your next presentation.

  1. Know your protagonist—your main character.
    When framing your story, determine who your main character will be and the journey they are on. As I mentioned earlier, your protagonist might be your product, your project, a customer, a team, almost anything associated with your brand, or your brand itself.  
  2. Explain the inciting incident.
    What happened that set your main character on their journey? Was it an event like the pandemic, a fierce new competitor, or a critical unmet clinical need? This incident will drive your story. 
  3. Convey the main character’s goal. 
    What does the main character want to achieve by taking this journey? This is their goal. With a sales team project, for example, it may be to gain approval for a new strategy that will help overcome the impact of a new competitor. 
  4. Convey what’s at stake.
    Deftly specify what will happen if your main character doesn’t succeed in their quest. For example, if the new competitor prevails, brand performance will decrease by X%, along with your team’s morale. 
  5. Remember the element of surprise.
    Surprises keep audiences engaged. Maybe it’s a highly compelling statistic, an inspirational quote, or an image with a pithy message that “pops.”   
  6. Incorporate ups and downs.
    Any binge-worthy television or podcast story series surely elicits a rollercoaster of emotions. The same should be true for your story. Maybe your department tried and failed to garner support for your project last year, but you revised it based on feedback and it was approved this year. If you don’t have an anecdote, consider including some humor as a way to bring your audience up and then back down to focus on your presentation.
  7. Include a call to action—or let it speak for itself.
    If you’ve done your job as a storyteller, your call to action will be apparent. Now that everyone understands the whole story (who’s involved, what’s driving the journey, what’s at stake, and how challenging it’s been), they’ll likely be rooting for you, the patient, your team, your brand, or your project—in other words, your main character—to succeed.

By following these basic rules, your audiences will soon be sitting on the edge of their seats!

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Mary Barlow brings to Encompass more than 30 years of experience in healthcare, including in training, quality management, and communications with insurers, as well as writing for pharma, medical device companies, physicians, hospitals, distributors, labs, and clinical trial awareness campaigns. A member of Grubstreet, Boston’s primary literary writing center, Mary has participated in Brown University’s Summer Writing Symposium and is an alumnus of The Writer’s Hotel literary arts center. Mary graduated magna cum laude from Clark University with a bachelor’s degree in the science of professional communications.

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