“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
Stories have existed long before recorded history. Humans have been telling stories as a way to connect, a way to inspire, and a way to leave a legacy. Early forms of storytelling were found in cave paintings depicting animals and human beings engaged in rituals and hunting practices. In 2000 BC, the first printed story was the Mesopotamian legend of Gilgamesh which quickly spread across the world. Somewhere around 620 BC, Aesop’s fables spread worldwide and are still taught today. The Bible. Shakespeare. Our need to tell stories crosses civilizations, cultures, and eras.
The human brain is wired for stories. Stories create patterns which we understand. They help us survive. They allow for prediction and action. We create mental shortcuts to problem solve. Mental discomfort, also known as “cognitive dissonance,” occurs when we have inconsistent thoughts and is much more difficult for us to comprehend. We like beginnings, middles, and ends.
Stories are universal tools to persuade and because of this, stories are excellent tools in an advocate’s toolbox. The quote by Leo Tolstoy above also illustrates why storytelling is one way in which anyone impacted by cancer can utilize the craft to impact health care policy. A diagnosis of cancer is most often a strange occurrence that takes the patient and their loved ones on a journey they were unprepared to travel.
So, how can advocates prepare to tell their story?
- Tailor for the audience: Who are you trying to influence? Is it your Senator, state delegate, cancer center director? Tailor your message for the person/people you are speaking to. What do you want them to do and what do they have the power to accomplish?
- Be authentic: Speak from the heart. Don’t read from a page. There should be nothing between you and your audience.
- Be relatable: Do you research and determine what you have in common. Find common ground and start from there.
- Be specific and data driven: Focus. Outline your main points, use vivid details, carefully plan what you want to say. Conclude strongly. Make sure to practice.
- Be short and sweet: You may only have a few minutes to communicate your story. You want to be a succinct as possible while also expressing your story in a powerful way.
- Get to the point: What is your ultimate point? Make sure that you begin and end with that in mind.
- Include a call to action: Why are you telling your story? What do you want to accomplish? Connect you story to the specific ask.
As the ultimate story tellers at The Moth remind us, storytelling isn’t an opportunity to become a standup comic or to rant, lecture, or be a martyr. It is an opportunity to connect with others, especially those who may not understand your experience or point of view. The best politicians can transcend politics. They make every person they talk to feel like the only person in the room. The best advocates must learn to do the same.
Mr. Rogers once said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” As painful and unexpected as cancer is for any patient, it is also an experience that brings people and communities together. It has become a component of the human experience and one that people understand. We all will experience cancer in one way or another…either personally or with a loved one. Storytelling helps us understand and to empathize. It also can galvanize people to take action.
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Health Care Advocacy Network. (n.d.). Storytelling for advocacy. Retrieved from https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nachc/pages/297/attachments/original/1494354353/Storytelling_One-Pager.pdf?1494354353
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