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    What the COVID-19 outbreak can teach healthcare leaders about effective storytelling


    Health care professionals having an informal coffee meeting.

    • When the coronavirus pandemic subsides and the health system returns to its new normal, what people will remember are the stories. The stories of heroic front-line caregivers who risked their lives to care for patients who had contracted COVID-19, the tales of nurses who played the role of surrogate family members, holding their patients’ hands as they endured the scariest moments of their lives.

      Storytelling is one of the most effective tools hospital and health system executives can use to bring their teams along with them during times of change. Certainly, saving patients from a deadly virus is not the same as merging with another health system or switching EHR vendors. But, what the outbreak does illustrate is the power of storytelling to lead through a period of dramatic change.

      We spoke with Paul Smith, a leading business storytelling coach and author of many books on the topic, including The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. Here, he shares insights on the most effective storytelling techniques for executives to use when leading their organizations through periods of transformation.

    • What makes a good story?

      Smith: Let’s start by knowing what’s not a story. A story is not the overarching concepts behind your marketing plan, your vision statement, or your brand logo. It’s not a sales pitch or message track or talking points in your speech or bullet points in your presentation. A story is a real narrative about something interesting that happened to someone.

    • Are there things in a real narrative that make it a story?

      Smith: Yes. A real story has six things in it: time, place, main character, goal, obstacles and events. It’s about a real person in a real place and time who has a goal, but there are obstacles or barriers or villains that get in the way of that person achieving their goal. Then events happen along the way that hopefully resolve themselves nicely in the end in either a success or a failure.

    • Why should hospital and health system executives use storytelling in business as a management technique?

      Smith: The reason is that storytelling generally is a more effective way to communicate with others on a more human, visceral level. It’s especially useful when what you’re trying to do is change what people think, feel or do. You’re trying to change their opinion about something, their emotional state or their behavior, their actions. In a word, it’s leadership. Storytelling should represent 10- to 15-percent of the communications that executives have with their staff.

    • Is there something magical about that 10- to 15-percent range?

      Smith: That’s just my observation of how much effective speakers and communicators use storytelling in their presentations. So in an hour-long presentation, you should have a handful of two- or three-minute stories that support the overall theme of your presentation. That’s what people will remember. If all you did was tell stories, it would be odd and would detract from your message. If all you did was lecture, not many people would remember everything you said.

    • Are there different types of stories for different situations that a healthcare executive could face?

      Smith: Yes. There are 60 or 70 different types of stories that every leader should be able to tell. But let me give you what I think are the Top 10 and how some of those work together. The first four are the “where we came from,” “why we can’t stay here,” “where we’re going” and “how we’re going to get there” stories. Those are the four types of stories that you tell when you need your organization to go where you want them to go. The next four are about who you are as an organization. They’re the “what we believe,” “who we serve,” “what we do for customers” and “how we’re different from competitors” stories. The last two are the “why I lead the way I do” and “why you should want to work here” stories.

    • What story types would be the best for hospital and health system executives to use now?

      Smith: There are a few story types you should tell to help people change and motivate them to change as quickly as possible to cope with what’s happening now. Those would be the “why we can’t stay here,” “where we’re going” and “how we’re going to get there” stories. Those are three types of stories that every hospital and health system executive should be telling to lead their organizations and the health system through this public health crisis. There are no shortages of powerful stories about the personal risks, sacrifices and heroic efforts being made right now at healthcare facilities across the country [and around the world].

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