February is American heart month, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
What can we expect?
Let’s see. We will be presented with the obligatory heart disease statistics like 1 in 4 deaths occur from heart disease. We will see experts paraded on TV, on radio, and in print publications talking about diet, exercise, stress reduction, salt intake, and all the other preventative things we could be doing. Then, after a great deal of build-up, much like an 18-year-old girl on prom night, we will all be left feeling unsatisfied and indifferent.
Attention medical authorities everywhere:
If you want to help with disease prevention, stop being you.
Stop pointing the public to dry disease statistics. Stop with the boring associations and esoteric calculations. Stop with the fancy jargon and government agendas. Instead, start thinking more like Hollywood and less like Ivy League.
No one reading this article would question the idea that if the public began exercising daily, started making better nutritional choices, and learned to manage levels of stress, we could save billions of dollars in medical expenses and reduce the financial burden that is threatening to bankrupt our nation. However, the argument as to how we can best go about initiating a model of disease prevention, rather than a model of disease treatment, is a topic of great debate.
I argue that people in Hollywood would be much better able to accomplish this objective than many university or medical professionals. Why? Because Hollywood professionals know how to emotionally engage people by telling a story. Movie producers know that to sell their movie they must hook people into a story line, get them to personally identify with the characters, and then take them for a ride that helps them explore the entire spectrum of human emotion from the character’s perspective. Hollywood sells stories that offer emotional connection, agitation, and release. (Incidentally, this is the same formula advertisers use to sell you things every day: connect – agitate – solve.) At the extreme other end of the scale, universities and medical professionals sell disease prevention strategies by presenting disconnected facts and mind-numbing statistics.
Hollywood makes people engage and act;
statistics make people daydream and desire cheeseburgers.
So how could universities and medical providers learn from Hollywood and create a message people would not only want to listen to, but on which they would also take action? The answer: create a story that has a problem and is easy to connect to, agitate the problem, and then offer a solution. But Brian, you say, how would a university or medical institution perform such an outlandish task? We are composed of academic researchers and medical professionals. We deal with liability and serious matters of life and death. We do not have time to waste on storytelling. Well then my friends, I say keep spending money on new drugs and better procedures, because we sure as hell are not going to make a dent in the problem with preventative strategies until we can emotionally engage with the public and lead them toward action.
How do we do it? Easy. Get Tom Rinaldi, the reporter from ESPN, to be in charge of the message. Every Saturday during college football season, Rinaldi does a story about some gut-wrenching/heartwarming story that engages the audience. And, every Saturday as I sip my Michelob Ultra I pretend to have something in my eye when I start to tear up over his story. Please understand I am not the exception here. This is an audience comprised largely of men who are at least a few drinks in by the time his clip comes on, and they are mostly engaged in a pseudo warfare mentality fraught with masculine cultural symbols and traditions. In other words, this is not a group of modern metro-sexual men who are ready to talk about their feelings and hold hands like they were getting ready for the next band at Woodstock. Still, I have seen entire rooms full of men and women quiet down and engage emotionally in the lives of the real people involved in Rinaldi’s segments.
The ultimate lesson we can take from reporters like Tom Rinaldi and Hollywood movie producers is that people do not connect with statistics. People connect with stories. If our goal is to influence human behavior by incorporating preventative strategies we know will work, we must engage people on the human level and lead them by the hand to a solution.
Will it be messy to deal with “people problems” including adherence and monitoring? Yes. People are always messy. That is what makes them so frustratingly beautiful. But will emotion always trump cold hard facts and warnings when it comes to getting people to engage and begin to act? You’d better believe it. (At least until the singularity…look it up R2-D2.)
So my simple message to all my friends in academia and in medical institutions everywhere is to learn to be a good story teller. If you are in a position to be able to persuade people and influence their decision making, you are by definition a sales person. And if you are a sales person, you must learn to influence by telling a good story.
By learning to emotionally engage with your patients and the public through stories, they will become primed and ready to take action when you tell them what lifestyle interventions they need to make. The public needs medical leaders who can break down the walls that separate academia and medical entities from the masses. The public needs head coaches to trust in and help guide them through their journey. You have the knowledge and the motivation to affect so many people. All you are missing is a good story.