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What We Learned: MLA13 – Consumer Health and the Power of Storytelling

Posted by on June 4th, 2013 Posted in: All Posts

by Terri Ottosen, Consumer Health Coordinator, NN/LM, SE/A Region

Attending the annual meeting of MLA is a ritual replete with social and intellectual experiences. These experiences help to reenergize and stimulate thinking about our profession, and about how we can bring new ideas back and put them into practice. One particular theme seemed to dominate conversations and presentations at the many programs and meetings I attended, the idea of storytelling.  

Richard Besser, ABC News’s senior health and medical editor, gave the John P. McGovern Award Lecture entitled, “Life on Two Sides of the Camera: The Role of Media in Shaping Health.”  He talked about the need to distill large and sometimes overwhelming health news into bite-sized television stories that were compelling, yet also relayed important facts, statistics, and information important to the public. He said that oftentimes he was lucky to get a full minute on air, which led him to construct stories differently than might be done otherwise. Instead of a recitation of statistics or facts, he told stories that illustrated the impact of the particular health concern using very few words that were heartfelt, emotional, and personally compelling.

For example, Dr. Besser showed a clip from the ABC World News that he did on children and brain injuries from football and other sports. In this clip, we saw a boy meet his football hero after suffering a head injury. Yes, it was emotional, but it carried the message in a way that made the most impact on viewers, rather than a recitation of the dangers of playing sports for children. The power of the story is not only the drama, but also the ability to get a message across that is relatable and carries great impact.

Other presentations and papers brought the idea home about how we, as librarians, can use the power of storytelling in our professional lives. When you think of consumer health, consumer engagement, and health care, it is important that we incorporate the principles of telling a health story to engage our patrons and our constituencies rather than a recitation of circulation statistics and reference request tallies. Instead of telling our administrators that we answered 50 consumer health questions last month, we should highlight a few stories about the personal side of those requests.

An illustration of this concept might be to tell the story of a patient unable to afford treatment for an anxiety disorder that you were able to help simply by pointing them to a directory of treatment centers using a sliding scale for payment. This may be a relatively small thing to an information professional, but to that individual it may mean the difference between existing and thriving. Think about those small victories you experience regularly in your library. How can you use those to highlight the important work you do for your institutions? How can your story be told to capture the attention of the decision-makers?

Increasingly, many fields in health care are recognizing the importance and power of storytelling. A recent article on emphasizes why storytelling still matters in a high-tech world. ( Arguably, it is probably even more important to relate technology developments in consumer health on a personal level. What is the value of technology if it is not to improve the lives of individuals? There are examples in the literature and on the web in many areas of business and public health in which experts are urging the use of story to enlighten and educate.

One particular blog of interest is called “Storlietelling: Inspiration, Ideas & Inroads for Health.” ( The author writes in her bio that she brings her professional training in nutrition and fitness with her experience in marketing to “translate the complexity of health into motivating communications and programs…connecting the dots between these worlds to breathe meaning into health communications.” This concept is definitely something to think about when we are trying to breathe life into communicating what we do every day to help consumers or health professionals to tell their story and ours.

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