Lessons Learned On The Way To The Oscars

“Story” is a well-worn term in healthcare marketing. We call Facebook posts “stories,” sales aids “brand stories” and anyone who creates them “storytellers.” We use the term because we want communications to engage and transport with the power of a well-told story. Yet, with the highly regulated language of health marketing, our stories often land flat. 

Over the last few months, I was actually reawakened to the power of a good story. The opportunity came because of a short film I helped produce. Joe’s Violin tells the story of a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and a young student at a Bronx charter school. The film starts with the small gift of an unused violin and ends with a larger gift of friendship. 

Initially, we thought Joe’s Violin would show at a few film festivals and, with luck, find a distributor. Suffice it to say, the film struck a chord. On Jan. 24, Joe’s Violin was announced as one of five Academy Award nominees for the Best Short Documentary Oscar. 



The lessons I learned actually didn’t come while driving to the Oscars. They came from the month beforehand when we held a number of screenings for Academy voters. By seeing and hearing live how others experienced our story, I rediscovered a few things that could make stories also work in healthcare marketing.

  • It starts with a connection. Emotionally, audiences strongly identified with either the older Holocaust survivor or the young student from the Bronx. After screenings, members of the audience would come up to say how it was like their family’s immigrant experience or like life in an under-resourced school. Having a personal identification hooked viewers into the story.
  • Employ empathy. The lesson here is the importance of empathy in our communications. If you understand your audience on an emotional level and express that understanding early in your piece, you will open eyes and ears to what you are saying. This is true regardless of whether you are speaking to patients or physicians. Yes, doctors are deeply rational. But, as I know from my pediatrician wife, they are also facing enormous changes and pressures in how they deliver care. If you acknowledge these stresses or touch their aspirations as you present a new treatment, you may best open their hearts to your message.
  • A positive is magnified when set against a struggle. Audiences were given to sobs at the end of Joe’s Violin because of its final moment of grace. Brianna plays a song for Joe as thank you for the violin. This small gesture carries much deeper emotional weight because of the struggle each faced before this moment.
  • Elevate the problem along with the benefit: The lesson here is that you can strengthen the positive of your story by setting it against a struggle. For instance, if you are communicating about a new treatment (positive), you can maybe make it stronger not just by using more superlatives or proof points. Instead, focus on the condition or patient type (struggle.) By giving your audience a deeper sense emotionally of the problem, they will look more highly on the benefit of treatment.
  • Every story has its own rhythm, pace and length. In only 24 minutes, Joe’s Violin seemed to cover a wide breadth of story and pack an emotional punch. The power was largely from the emotional tension created early and kept taut throughout the film. Even when moments could have been magnified, our filmmakers didn’t linger once their emotional point had been made.
  • Find your story first. The final lesson is obvious but important. In all marketing, we try to fit our “stories” into pre-set, pre-conceived media — 15-second pre-roll, 90 second YouTube videos, a 30-minute presentation. In doing so, we skip the discipline of what it takes to make a story work — establish an empathetic connection, bring to life the problem to be solved, and clearly outline the benefit with just the right amount of proof. If we really want to live into the role of “storyteller” we first need to find our story and then we need to figure out the best form to tell it.
1 comment about "Lessons Learned On The Way To The Oscars ".
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  1. Ruth Barrett from, April 7, 2017 at 11:52 a.m.

    Thank you. Very good advice. 

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