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Our health industry expert and managing director, Kalen Stanton, continues this blogcast (podcast + blog), In Light of Change, and builds further on the why of change. In this episode, two storytelling gurus share the art and science behind crafting an engaging story that people care to listen to. Below is a summary of the episode—featuring Doug Johnson, patient experience officer at Edward-Elmhurst Health, and Root’s very own senior filmmaker Dave Ayling.

What you’ll hear:

  • Why your story needs a cat sitting on a dog’s mat
  • The narrative journey structure of almost every story
  • How the art and science of storytelling come together
  • The invitation to your audience that brings them into the story is more important than everything else 

Listen to the full conversation here.

Your Next Great Leadership Story

Kalen: This In Light of Change episode continues our intention of encouraging conversations to help leaders across health care and beyond lead change in our industry. Today we are talking with Root’s Dave Ayling, a senior filmmaker and all-around storytelling guru, and Doug Johnson, experience leader and master storyteller at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Dave knows about the power of storytelling and the science behind it—how different chemicals in the brain are activated by storytelling. There’s an equation, an algorithm to how stories are created and perceived by an audience, and Dave is here to help us think through that aspect of storytelling as leaders in health care.

And our guest Doug brings us an expanse of his own experiences as well as a lens from inside of health care in Chicago. He’s a master of telling stories and engaging audiences through authentic, purposeful connection.

Doug: My background is mostly outside of health care—baseball stadiums to shopping centers to restaurants, and now hospitals. You may think these four venues don’t have anything in common, but they do—they’re all destinations. And while people are with us, we need to tell a story that will make them want to come back. While with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, I needed to know, did the people in the crowd have a good time? In a shopping center, did they have fun during the two hours they were there? How about at a restaurant? Are we innovating? It’s the same in health care. We need to be thinking about our patients and their families through that lens of experience. How did we make them feel while they were in our care and will they choose us again?


Kalen: I’d love to get to the heart about what makes a great story. We commonly think about the two sides of the brain processing different inputs, so let’s discuss how the art and the science come together—and, what makes a great story?

Doug: The concept of a great story is very subjective. If you were to ask all of your clients and customers, and I were to ask all of our patients, “What is your favorite movie?” they would all give different answers. For me, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the art of storytelling. I only know what works for me.

My first lesson in storytelling was at an early age; I was seven. I grew up in Ohio and my dad really wanted to take us to Disney World in Florida. He described this place called Florida and I still remember two specific things he told me. He talked about these really strange and unusual trees—trees you don’t see in Ohio. And they look different; they’re called palm trees. And I couldn’t wait to see this new thing. He then described what we would experience when we got there and it wasn’t about Mickey, and Minnie, and Donald, and Goofy—it was about the orange juice in Florida. He said, “You are going to taste the most unbelievable freshly squeezed orange juice.” The way he set it up made me wonder, made me excited, introduced me to the unknown.

And so when I think about your question, I think about this quote from John le Carré: “The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on a dog’s mat is a story.” So when it comes to storytelling, I think it’s important that we all remember to introduce the dog. Don’t just talk about the mat. The dog doesn’t have to represent chaos; it just has to be the thing that helps you see or feel something. And that’s what my dad did. If my dad had said, “Florida’s really pretty and warm,” then I wouldn’t have been as intrigued. Stories need to get the audience to think and see something and feel something. So these trees that you’ve never seen before, the freshest orange juice you’ll ever imagine—that was the dog in his story.

When I think about the storytelling I do with our hospital teams every single day, I remind myself to talk about more than just the cat sat on a mat. I don’t want to forget the dog.

Kalen: That’s great, Doug. When you have the dog in the story, you have the art to this narrative that taps into someone’s brain in a different way than if we had just given them information, a basic input.

Dave, would you give us some insight on the science behind it now?

Dave: There’s a long history to the science of storytelling—I think it goes back about 150 years. Freytag, a German philosopher and writer, created what is now called Fretyag’s pyramid, which is all about the dramatic arc—your story should have a beginning, rising action, the climax, and then a denouement or falling action.

Then there was Joseph Campbell, known for theories on myths and legends and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which centers on a single character who goes through a journey with several points along the way. The journey will have a call to action, the resisting the challenge, the eventual accepting of the challenge, and then a series of trials. The process takes you into a new world and allows you to reach a new conclusion and you actually change yourself.

In fact, the original Star Wars follows Campbell’s formula to a T. When George Lucas was asked how in the world did you come up with such an enigmatic story, he cited Campbell—who was pretty much an unknown at that point—and the rest of the world began following this formula too. In short, when you take people on a journey that follows familiar steps, you elicit certain chemical reactions in the brain—chemicals like oxytocin that make you feel good as you reach the conclusion of a story. Other chemicals are brought out when a character is going through a challenge; other parts of the story trigger chemicals that lead to empathy.

Kalen: I love that. It’s interesting to learn about the science. And then the Star Wars example is something we can all relate to.


Doug, when you think about engaging an audience, how do you set the stage or create that invitation to be a part of the story?

Doug: I try to get their attention right out of the gate. For example, our team members are in a lot of meetings—they’re busy. Often, people think they know what I’m going to say, and they don’t need to hear a new message about the same topic. What I try to do is reveal a gap in their knowledge so that within a few seconds, they put down their phone, lean in a little bit, and nod their heads. And if you have their attention, then perhaps you can get them to feel something.

You asked me earlier, “What makes a story great?” One thing I failed to mention is I think a great story makes you feel something. And so, in health care, that’s really what we spend a lot of time on.

When I give a talk to our hospital employees, I will often ask the audience to raise their hands if they’ve spent a night in a hospital in the last 12 months. Very few people raise their hands. So, we’re all experts at working in health care, but not too many of us know what it’s like to be a patient. And by asking a question like that right out of the gate, I’m usually able to get their attention, perhaps reveal a gap in their knowledge, and trigger them to be more open to learning and understanding versus thinking they already know everything about this particular subject.

In my previous industries, it was easy to be a fan or a shopper or a restaurant guest. Being a patient isn’t as simple. I can invite you to sleep over in the hospital. I can push you in a wheelchair. But if you’re not scared and you haven’t cried and you’re not sure what the next knock on the door is going to bring, then you don’t really know what it’s like to be a patient.

I use storytelling to try and invite people in, to get them curious and feeling something, early on. If you get a lot of nodding heads and buy-in, then from there you can work on creating something better together.

Kalen: Great insights. It’s important for leaders to make those connections and create that invitation—and those things can be easily missed. Yes, we can often forget to invite people into our story, and then all we’ve really accomplished is telling them something that needs to be done. It’s very linear and with very little color.

Do you think everyone is capable of telling a story?

Doug: Yes, I think anyone can tell a story and everyone should. It takes practice, though. Having a really good story is one thing, but even more important is making that story relevant to your audience. If you’re telling a story, think about your audience and then ask yourself that question: “How do we want the story to end?”—meaning how do you want the audience to leave your talk? What do you want them to feel? What do you want them to say about your talk to others? And probably most importantly, what do you want them to do about it? And then work your way backwards and try to figure out how you’re going to get them there.

Dave: Leaders need to tell stories because facts tell, and stories sell. Stories create connections. I feel like everyone does have a good story to tell; they just always don’t know how to organize their facts in a compelling way.

Kalen: I think about our team members, our caregivers in health care especially, entire careers are built on trying to do the right thing for my fellow humans. So, we have all of these wonderful people on a collective mission to do the right thing, and yet the industry is often rocked by different constraints. It’s a challenge. Doug, what do you think our next chapter is going to be?

Doug: That’s a great question. Health care is always evolving. What our patients and our employees want and need, and what they’re asking for, changes through technology and resources. I don’t know exactly what the next chapter will be, but I know patient experience is key.

At Edward-Elmhurst Health, our definition of patient experiences is pretty simple. It’s how we make you feel moment to moment.

We are trying to transform the health care experience and make our care more safe, seamless, and personal. I can’t predict the future, but I believe that if we remain true to that simple definition, then regardless of how that manifests—the technology, the plan, whatever—if we focus on how we make people feel moment to moment, then I think we’ll be successful.


Doug: I think it’s important that the audience also believes that stories are told without words. Our waiting rooms are telling a story. Our lobbies tell a story, our websites tell a story. You may have a hospital mobile app—it’s telling a story too. You might have mismatched waiting room furniture—that’s telling a story. The TV show playing in that waiting room is telling a story too. You should make sure you’re always telling the story you want to be telling.

Kalen: Thank you, Doug. Thank you for bringing your story to health care and for your unique way of inviting others to bring their story into their work, into their passion. At Root our cause is invigorating the power of human beings to make a difference, and so this really resonates with our mission. Thank you so much for continuing to lead the way and to spark and create change and lead change there in Chicago and beyond.

Dave, thank you for bringing the science to our discussion to help leaders realize why it’s important to have a dog in our stories. Why we need an arc. Why our stories have and why it’s important for us to feel a part of the journey versus just being told what we need to do.

Thank you both for your time today and to helping others craft stories that engage leaders and team members together on a journey.

Ready to engage your organization in their next story? Send Kalen and the team a note here to continue the conversation on crafting and engaging your team in the future of health transformation.

February 3, 2020


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