Not everyone walking the Earth is a scientist. Shocking, I know, and perhaps even a shame. If everyone was science-literate, climate change, ocean plastic and other environmental apocalypses probably wouldn’t be issues. Of course, the increased competition to have a research paper accepted by Nature or to get a pass to ComicCon would likely result in mortal combat.
Nevertheless, we are living in a world in which not everyone understands the difference between DNA and RNA, or how gene expression works. As a generalization, scientists may understand underlying science but, by training, are highly skeptical of new data or findings. Conversely, as a generalization, non-scientists often may not understand the underlying science but are more accepting of research as “proven.” This duality presents a challenge to marketers everywhere.
Maybe you’re a biotech startup entrepreneur or investor, the CEO of a medical device company or a marketer in a drug development organization or communications agency. In any of these roles, you have a compelling story rooted in science that must be understood by diverse groups of people, some of whom haven’t taken a science course since high school. Yet, many of those people are potential investors, partners and patients.
So, how does a life science or healthcare company simultaneously convey the value and importance of its science to scientists and non-scientists alike?
Define And Support Your Company Story
Start by making sure that you have a company story to tell in the first place. Like all good stories told throughout history, science-based stories begin with a truthful narrative. They must first state the way things are and set the stage, as it were, based on the facts before the plot explores how things might be in some brighter tomorrow.
Or as Mark Twain once said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
Begin with a sober look at what the body of research, key opinions or the competitive landscape suggest pertaining to a new approach, technique, device, diagnostic test or new therapeutic. Does the data suggest that it might work? Does the research point to it feasibly saving or improving lives if commercialized? Are there flaws in the science? It’s not enough to tell a story without these core elements.
To put a very fine point on it, if that truth — the data, research and expert opinion — suggests otherwise, then you have an ethical obligation not to tell yet another Theranos tale. To ignore or distort the truth to the point of mistruth, you lose the credibility required to win the hearts and minds of those you wish to compel to do great things, like treat their patients or invest in your company.
The classic elements of storytelling still apply, as well. You have to create and release tension through a story arc. Typically, you have a protagonist, such as a compound, device, technology or researcher, who is facing challenges like milestones and endpoints. Additionally, perhaps the protagonist even faces an antagonist, which could be competitors, scientific and regulatory hurdles or status quo technology or approaches. These elements create a connection with your audience through transferable experience.
Science Storytelling — Top Down Or Bottom Up?
At this point, you will have decided on a scientific or medical innovation story built upon a foundation of promising and peer-reviewed support. That story is based on truth and ideally has the necessary elements to make it an interesting, engaging story. Now, how do you describe the potential of a scientific or medical breakthrough in an accessible way to the general public without dumbing it down to the point of alienating the very medical or scientific personnel who will use the technology or solution?
Start by relating to your audiences and thinking about what they want and need from the story. For starters, these two groups process information in slightly different ways.
• Top Down: Generally speaking, the vast majority of the lay public consume information by starting with the headline or main application of the technology. This lead will often skip directly to the downstream impact and will only rarely dive down into the research to see whether not the science supports it.
• Bottom Up: Again, a generalization, but scientists or medically trained professionals are accustomed to questioning data and information before accepting the possibility of claims or downstream benefits. They tend to dive down into the underlying research first and then rise up to the possible applications and the downstream promise of innovation or breakthrough.
In many cases, stories told for patient audiences work best as emotive stories. Typically, these are shaped as the macro disease story (e.g., the prevalence of the disease, current treatments and the unmet need). These stories easily pivot into anecdotal experiences in which you experience what one person, or a few people, experience with their condition or affliction.
Be Compelled To Tell A Compelling Story
Of course, much of what I’ve discussed here are generalizations and frameworks, not absolutes for every situation. Not all scientists are exactly the same, just as not every investor, patient or business person is the same. They’re human beings and are as unique in their thinking as snowflakes.
However, you will find that by basing your story on truth, building it in a traditional story structure and emphasizing different parts of the story depending on your audience, you can increase the chances that the people who matter most to your business will care. If you’re really good at it, you might even have a great business story to tell later.