The nine-year old storyteller and the VP of Marketing
When Lori met Chloe
A good story weaves a spell. It takes us on a journey where we see — and feel — humans in action. In this (fictional) case study, a VP of Marketing learned the power of storytelling from a surprising source. A nine-year old girl.
Once upon a time, a small, prestigious hospital on New York City’s Upper West Side — let’s call it New York MED — fell on difficult times. For years, New York MED had been known and admired for talent, boldness, and breakthroughs. But now New York MED was known for mistakes; in surgery and the billing department. Finances were shaky. Several high-profile physicians and a CEO left for competitors. For nearly a decade, a once great hospital was lost. The worst moment came when a prominent New York MED surgeon was embroiled in a lawsuit and lost.
What’s our message?
At the very least, new messaging was clearly going to be needed and marketing proposed an approach along the lines of — “New York MED has the city’s best heart surgeons.” “New York MED is the leading teaching hospital in the Northeast.” “New York MED. Think of us as family.” All of which inspired no one.
Internally, PR fought with the VP of Marketing. The PR team wanted to emphasize New York MED’s storied history. The marketing group felt that expertise and caring were most important. Confusion reigned. More people left.
The problem of claims and assertions
We’ll get back to our case study in a second. But let’s quickly note the bald assertions above. It’s an enduring problem in marketing. “New York MED is the leading teaching hospital in the Northeast.” It sits there like a dead fish — like a billion other claims that every business everywhere makes. “NY MED. Think of us as family.” I don’t feel persuaded, do you? There’s no hint of emotion, no sense of life, of movement, of genuine connection. There’s no story.
Stories tell us who we are
Here’s why storytelling in business is on fire. It’s because the old ways, the claims, the assertions — nearly all of advertising — are on life support. No one’s buying. There’s wide agreement on the need to do something different, though not on what direction to take.
There’s a mountain of evidence that show stories can transform nearly every aspect of business writing. That’s because our brains are wired for stories. Stories are how humans transmit and reveal who we are, how we operate, and, what matters to us. Stories are how we connect.
The inciting incident
A well crafted story has a protagonist, an antagonist (sometimes referred to as the ‘forces of antagonism’) and an inciting incident, that thing, that event, that launches the protagonist into a new, disorienting world and onto a journey. And the story begins.
So here’s the rub. In a business setting, there is a world of difference between asserting that a physician (or a hospital) is dedicated and brilliant and expressing that in story form. In story form, you show the physician (or hospital) in action, living out their dedication and caring. Which is what a nine-year old storytelling patient named Chloe, taught New York MED’s VP of Marketing. Let’s pick up the story.
When Lori met Chloe
In spite of redoubled marketing efforts, New York MED still struggled to re-establish its position after a devastating lawsuit. Nothing changed, until one fateful winter’s day, when Lori Smith, the besieged VP of Marketing, met Chloe, a smart, freckled-faced nine-year-old cancer patient.
Although Chloe had a terminal illness, she was spirited and creative. She was an Instagram superstar with 750,000 followers and supporters. Her charm and bravery — her story — had captivated hundreds of thousands. And Lori, for all her professional training and experience, was nowhere near the storyteller that Chloe was.
‘We are gonna fight the bad guys’
On her good days, Chole took selfies with her caretakers. She posted her work on Instagram. She was especially fond of Kathy, a London born radiologist. Under a photograph of a bald and smiling Chloe with Kathy, was Chole’s caption:
“This is Kathy. She’s from London. I LOVE how she talks. She takes pictures of my brain. She says my cancer cells are the bad guys, and that we are gonna fight the bad guys. She hid her new puppy Buddy, under her coat and snuck him past the nurse’s station into my room so I could meet him! Hi Buddy!”
When Chloe met Lori, she took a selfie of the two of them. She asked Lori, ‘what’s your job?’ Lori, angry about her workload, her responsibilities and lack of success, stumbled around for awhile and finally said, “I identify potential markets and deliver the appropriate messages. I’m not very good at it.”
Chloe looked out the window for a moment, returned to her iPad and tapped out her caption. “This is my new friend Lori! I think she tells stories.”
Two weeks later Lori got the news after another contentious meeting where it was made clear she needed to deliver results. Chloe had died in the middle of the night surrounded by her family.
Lori finds the golden key
It was only in subsequent days that Lori Smith, grieving for young Chloe, and dejected about her job, sat at her cluttered desk, and found her way to the treasure that was Chloe’s Instagram feed. She scrolled through dozens of touching and poignant mini stories that told the world about Chloe and her caretakers at New York MED. There was a post with Chloe and Joshua. “Joshua cleans my room. He was supposed to be working tonight, but he held my hand for two straight hours because I was so sad.” There was Bing, an oncologist from Shanghai, who, Chloe wrote, “taught me to say ‘my favorite food is ice cream’ in Mandarin.” And there was Margaret, a night nurse. “This is Margaret. When I can’t sleep, she sings to me.”
Lori Smith stopped at the image of herself with Chloe. As she read the words, ‘I think she tells stories’ it finally began to dawn. She thought, “I think I know what we need to do. Finally.”
Did Lori Smith realize she was on a quest? Not likely. Did she realize that the lawsuit was an inciting incident that launched New York MED into a world of confusion about its identity and mission? Did she know that she was a character in a larger drama filled with inciting conflicts, crises, and resolutions? Unlikely. But somewhere inside, she did know that she’d found a person wiser than herself who instinctively understood that humans connect through the stories they tell. Chloe held the golden key and Lori knew it, saw it and was changed.
For business writers, thinking and working in story form, changes everything. It gives us a much deeper — even profound — understanding of the forces at work in human affairs and, gives us the means to shape our narratives to engage and connect with our audience in a noisy world.
As the great E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.”