Nov 10, 2015

How to spur Congress to act: 7 essential elements of storytelling

Republished with permission from AMA Wire®

The struggle with electronic health records (EHR) is real, and Congress needs to hear from physicians.  But how can you make your story compelling? How can you pen a tale that cuts to the heart of the matter and inspires your members of Congress to take action? These seven elements of storytelling—recommended by an expert on engaging members of Congress—will help you craft the most potent version of your story.

In an AMA Very Influential Physicians (VIP) webinar last week, Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, delivered expert advice on how physicians can compose and position their personal EHR stories in an effort to persuade Congress to take action against meaningful use Stage 3 and further progression of the program’s troublesome regulations.
Why is storytelling important for this cause?
Storytelling is a key part of the psychology of persuasion. We feel, and then we decide. In order for Congress to understand the detrimental effect meaningful use regulations have on daily practice, physicians need to deliver a perspective that will show the impact on their lives and the lives of their patients.
Members of Congress deal with a lot of data, spreadsheets and graphs every day, Fitch said. This type of information is being delivered to them all the time. But only physicians can communicate the personal stories from the front lines and drive them to act.
The 7 elements of storytelling
Your story should be brief. One page, single-spaced, is about 500 words. This length will take approximately four to six minutes to read aloud. If a story is too long, your members of Congress could lose interest, particularly with the numerous other demands for their attention, Fitch said, answering a listener’s question
Mark Twain once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Condensing your story can be difficult, but take the time to make it concise. A shorter story is more memorable and can leave a lasting impression, Fitch said.
When crafting your story, Fitch recommends using these seven elements of storytelling to most effectively communicate your experience with EHRs and regulations:
1.   “The Want”: Begin with the end in mind.
Know what you want before you begin. Do you want your member of Congress to understand how EHRs have increased costs to your practice or impacted the delivery of care to patients? A good storyteller begins knowing what the end product should deliver emotionally.

Consider various tactics and methods to achieve your goal in the story. Your goal can be to flatter, surprise, or evoke empathy or urgency. You are the Steven Spielberg of your story. What effect do you want to have on your audience?
2.   “The Opening”: Set the stage and establish the stakes.
Your first sentence or two should make your reader want to know more. What is at stake for patients, their families or you as the physician providing their care? As much as possible, think about the effect these regulations have on your ability to deliver quality care to your patients.

Members of Congress are listening for the component that tells them, “If I don’t do X, then Y will happen.”
3.   “Paint the Picture”: The details and senses of your story.
When you experienced the moment you are writing about, what did you see, hear, touch, taste and smell? These are the elements that will get your members of Congress involved in the story.

Remember to use adjectives to enhance the power of your narrative. Make it real. Be practical, specific and graphic—don’t hold anything back! What descriptive words could make your story compelling and interesting? For example, substitute “morose” for “sad” or use the word “devastated” rather than “upset.” These are the kinds of impact words that paint the picture of your story.
4.   “The Struggle”: Describe the fight.
Identify the conflict. Real struggles in life are mental, philosophical, emotional, physical—even internal. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, and the interactions between these two is where the conflict lies.

Don’t hesitate to play the underdog. Members of Congress love to come to the aid of the underdog. They want to help David win the battle against Goliath. Play that strength.
5.   “The Discovery”: Always surprise the legislator.
What did you learn or realize in the moment of your story? Find this answer and deliver it when it will have the most impact. Then describe how that learning impacted your life, the lives of your patients, the future of your practice and your ability to deliver quality care.

You may not have a discovery, but is there a part of your story that might surprise the legislator? If you can add a twist—a moment that truly delivers the scope of your struggle—then use it.
6.   “We Can Win!”: Introduce the potential of success and joy.
Success in a story is when the hero or heroine wins the fight or struggle. Joy is when the audience can participate and take part in the celebration of victory. If you can hook your members of Congress into feeling the impact of success and the joy that will follow, they become a part of your cause.

Think: “Senator/Representative, we have the opportunity to ….” Then describe how that victory will enhance your practice and the lives of patients and their families.
7.   “The Button”: Finish with a hook.
As you end your story, come up with a last line your members of Congress will always remember. Be thoughtful when composing your final line. Write it out and make it perfect. Have your ending sentence memorized when you’re speaking in person. This way, your member of Congress will remember it for the rest of the day.

Fitch related a particularly salient example. While delivering his story to a Congressman regarding his inability to acquire necessary medication, a veteran described a moment when his granddaughter asked him, “Poppy, why do your hands shake?” He looked at the Congressman and said, “What should I tell her?” This kind of hook will tug at the heart strings of your members of Congress and stay with them.
Once your story is drafted, revised and final, deliver it to your member of Congress. Visit to send your story directly to Congress by email.
Remember to take your time. A well-crafted story, no matter how small, can hold remarkable power.
How to more actively reach your members of Congress
Become a member of the AMA’s “Very Influential Physicians (VIP)” program by visiting the AMA Grassroots Advocacy Web page to take part in future activities. You also can log in to view the full 7 elements of storytelling webinar.
By AMA staff writer Troy Parks

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