Tales from the heart

Our work – our lives – are built on and steeped in storytelling. It’s how we make sense of things, how we fill in the blanks to create meaning out of moments and commitment in the midst of chaos [remember Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan?].

Of course, at work we don’t call it storytelling. We dress it up in professional language, like ‘case study’ or ‘discussion’ or just plain ‘conversation.’ But if you listen closely, you’ll hear stories everywhere – in the hallways and cafeteria, around the nursing stations, over breaks, and under pressure.

Stories are how we pass on what we know. They’re how we learn, give meaning to events, and share our wisdom. They help us understand how and why things change, and what we might do to make a difference. They are the currency of character: they tell us about others and reveal to others who we are.

If you’re looking for ways to lead, engage, and align people in serving patients and their families, try the ancient craft of storytelling.

One of my clients asked for help in creating a presentation for her hospital board. Her goal was to get support for an area-wide organ donor program. Steeped in data and limited to a 15-minute time slot, she was struggling with how to narrow the numbers and gain the board’s approval for the program.

I asked, “What’s the most memorable case you can recall?” She told me about a 42-year-old family man who’d recently died in the hospital following a heart attack. Thanks to the awareness and sensitivity of the hospital staff, his corneas, kidneys, and liver gave three recipients a new lease on life.

She grasped the story’s power, and opened her presentation with a compelling narrative about the man, his family, and the lives of those he touched. She then linked it to some well-chosen data and examples of other patients awaiting transplants. No PowerPoint, no spreadsheets, no glossy one-pagers from the marketing department. Just stories she delivered in a way that captured everyone’s attention. She got approval for the program before she left the room.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of work and lose sight of its purpose. Stories convey messages that facts and figures can’t touch. Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, tells this story-within-a-story. “If you tell a manager to ‘stop criticizing employees,’ she may counter with, ‘’How else do I let them know they are making mistakes?’ …However, if you tell her, ‘In Washington, D.C., last week, I had a Haitian cab driver who shared his grandfather’s favorite saying with me, ‘”The man who beats his horse will soon be walking,”’ you call her attention to a larger, deeper context….”

If you want to create a culture of caring, fuel employees’ commitment to customers, and convey what you most deeply value, then bring customer stories and stories of service into your meetings and conversations.

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