Stories Can Change Your Heart

As a fresh-faced college undergrad studying Communications and Public Relations, I often dreamed of a fascinating job that involved celebrities, world travel, my name printed on a book cover…you know, the stuff of movies. While my reality turned out a little different, I found professional fulfillment working in health care marketing and communications.

I have counted my many professional blessings over the years, being a part of projects and organizations that constantly remind me to appreciate my family and friends, my health and my community. When I started my own business, I gained an even deeper appreciation for flexibility, responsibility and the satisfaction that can come from helping clients tell their story.

Some days, my work is work…but some days my work is a privilege. Today was most definitely a privilege. I had the opportunity to hear Sorrell King address a room of health care professionals. She is a woman I admire for so many reasons.

In patient safety circles around the world, Sorrell King’s heartbreaking story has inspired a movement. Fifteen years ago this month, her 18-month-old daughter died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Josie King had suffered burns in a bathtub and was well on her way to recovery…only days from being discharged from the hospital.

Then, in what can only be considered every family’s worst nightmare, a series of communication breakdowns and medical errors among the caregivers entrusted with her care led to Josie’s death. As a parent, it is heart-breaking to think about losing a child at all…let alone in such a preventable way.


To hear Sorrell King recall the experience and her feelings of guilt, grief and overwhelming anger during that ordeal is difficult. To hear how the King family turned this tragedy into a touchstone event for an entire industry is remarkable. In their darkest hours, the Kings turned a tragedy into a force for good. As I listened to her speak, I was struck by Sorrel King’s candor and her unwavering belief that a culture that supports good communication leads to better, safer care.

Health care, at its core, is always about the patient. As the Josie King story reminds us, in health care organizations, communication breakdowns can cost lives. What seems like a simple concept – good communication – is actually a huge hurdle for hospitals, both large and small, to overcome. Sorrell King has a fierce determination to change the culture of health care, beginning with communicating openly about our mistakes. We can’t improve if we don’t acknowledge what went wrong. And in this time of increased access to data and research, it is still the power of a personal story that can change hearts and minds.

Much of the work that the Josie King Foundation has funded in the years since its formation have been focused on improving communications. Sharing Josie King’s story was really just the beginning. Sorrell King has worked tirelessly over the past 15 years to initiate conversations with doctors, nurses, patients and families about ways to communicate better, more clearly and without fear in the sprit of delivering better and safer patient care. Ambitious, yes, but if anyone can tackle the challenge head on – Sorrell King and the Josie King Foundation are in the best position to bring us all along.

Sorrell King’s passion is contagious and her message is powerful. I’m in awe of her courage and the entire audience was touched by her honesty and enthusiasm.

Her story has certainly changed my heart.

Stories Can Change Your Heart

Word of Mouth Marketing: Storytelling That Can Help or Hurt Any Business

Word of mouth marketing has long been seen as one of the most effective tools for any business. Studies routinely show that people trust those closest to them to offer advice and recommendations about everything from a good book to read, the best grocery store to use, and even the doctor they should see. At its core, word of mouth marketing is simply storytelling. We have a natural tendency to create narratives for events in our life. Most of us love to share these stories, when given the opportunity.

I was recently sitting at the car dealership as my vehicle was in for an oil change and state inspection. Prepared for the hour wait, I had my laptop open and was happily taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. When two additional people sat down, they struck up a conversation about medical care. In the span of only minutes, I learned that both had knee replacement surgery; where they each had it done; how their recovery had gone. What’s more, I discovered that the both had spouses who had recent rotator cuff surgeries; where those were performed and how they each felt about the care that was provided.

When one woman mentioned the name of her husband’s surgery, my ears perked up and I couldn’t help but join the conversation. This is because my husband recently had knee surgery with the same orthopedic surgeon. I was able to chime in about his experience. Fortunately, all was positive and for anyone else sitting in the room, this surgeon received a ringing endorsement.

What would someone else overhearing the (now three way) conversation take away from this exchange? This particular surgeon was associated with a great personality; low pain levels after surgery; easy recovery, even immediately following surgery. And the hospital where the surgery took place also received high marks for having staff that are friendly, good food and a lot of expertise.

Businesses need to think about what they want their narrative to be. While it is not practical to script that story for every client/customer/patient; the power of that narrative should not be underestimated. Positive stories are great, but negative stories can be just as powerful too. In fact, the negative stories are far more likely to be shared widely.

The work you do; the services you provide; the relationships you develop (whether over years or in minutes while waiting on car service) – they all contribute the stories that are unfolding all around us.

How will you create the kind of story that drives your business?

For more information about how VanInk can help you tell your story, contact


Word of Mouth Marketing: Storytelling That Can Help or Hurt Any Business

Giving Back Matters

The fast-approaching holiday season brings with it (for me, anyway) a growing to-do list that has me scratching my head about how it is all going to get done. Family visits, decorating, shopping, cooking and the like should bring joy and peace, but I know they will more likely bring stress.

My kids will be wired for the entire month and I will do my best to be patient between buying teacher gifts, making holiday crafts, and balancing the “normal” calendar with social outings and shopping trips. My daughter started playing holiday music weeks ago and I could feel my shoulders tightening under the stress.

But as so often happens in life, I found myself in a place that provided just what I needed when I needed it. No, I didn’t win the lottery (although that would have been nice too). I was reminded with such clarity about what is really important.

I sit on the board of a nonprofit organization that, among many other things, helps the less fortunate in the community with housing, food and support services to end the cycle of poverty and homelessness. During a recent event, I had the opportunity to hear from someone who had directly benefited from one of our programs.

While I’m sure it was difficult to talk about (especially to the crowd that had gathered), this man explained some of the circumstances that landed him and his wife in a situation where they had no stable housing. Not only was he fortunate to benefit from a more permanent home, he was given additional support that allowed him and his wife to focus on the future. They could move forward, because the generosity of the programs offered (made possible by the efforts of the community to fund and supply resources).

He was grateful to have security and appreciative for items like the bag of food that they received to prepare a Thanksgiving holiday meal. Every effort to support them was helping them look to the future – something that he and his wife were struggling to do when they didn’t know where they would sleep from night to night.

It is very easy to focus on the negative. As I witness terrorism events around the world that leave me heartbroken and anxious; as I read news reports of criminals and their despicable acts; and even as I see evidence of the darker sides within my own community; it becomes easy to get caught up in a cycle of negativity and pessimism. A dark place where the holiday season is a stress and not a joy.

But then I was eloquently reminded by this man and his wife, that goodness does exist in every facet of life. It has a way of lifting us up and propelling us forward – as a person and as a community. Once accepting the help they needed and being able to look ahead, they are paying it forward in so many ways. They are sharing their story. They are helping support the program with repairs and labor. They are doing whatever they can to contribute in ways big and small.

I walked away from the evening feeling inspired and grateful. I’m proud to be part of a community that cares, to have the fellowship of people who share a commitment to making life better. We’re all richer for the experience. Most importantly, I was reminded that giving back is the greatest gift.

I intend to add a few more calendar dates (of the community service variety) to the holiday season for me and my family. It is guaranteed to get us in the spirit.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving. I wish you all a blessed holiday season.



Giving Back Matters

Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

I recently attended the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (or as the healthcare insiders affectionately refer to it: SHSMD – pron. shuss-med) 2015 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. I think it goes without saying that conferences of this magnitude (over 1,000 attendees, more than 70 concurrent sessions and 100 exhibitors) can be a bit difficult to summarize in any concise manner. That said, I picked up on several common themes that I think really encapsulate where healthcare Marketing, Strategy and Communications practices are headed.

Digital, digital, digital…

Who doesn’t know this, right? Life as we know it revolves around digital. As professionals, digital is no longer just a channel to be included on the distribution matrix. It needs to be the core of our thought process.

Digital is the new first impression for most companies. People see your online presence via social media or visit your website before ever entering the doors of your facility, so the need for a strong digital first impression is more important than ever before. Remember the days when your website was static content that rarely changed? Neither do I. Those days are (thankfully) long gone.

The name of the (digital) game today is engagement. And by engagement, that means talking about what the audience cares about; not simply pushing your own agenda. This kind of relationship building is never one and done. Like face to face relationships, customer relationship development requires a long term commitment. Show appreciation and be authentic, and be transparent with what you want. If there is an ask, make it clear.

Digital communication both requires and enables greater flexibility. Messages change and adapt with dizzying speed and the organizations that accept this new reality will have an advantage.

Data is king.

Data and analytics are no longer reserved exclusively for (ahem) “other” departments. The modern Communications/Marketing/Strategy practitioner needs to use data to plan, execute and demonstrate the value of any initiative. The tools are abundant and CRM is undoubtedly the cool kid on the block.

I’m no data geek, but even I understand that the science behind the art of communication should not be underestimated. Return on investment – a term once rarely uttered by any communication professional – is now part of the nomenclature and was discussed at length over the course of the conference.

The ability to reach people where they are in the digital space is a game changer. Big brother is big data and we experience this new reality every time we go online. Understanding the data tools for both planning and reporting a campaign is vital to win support from executives.

It’s time to knock the silos down.

Today’s Marketing/Communication/Strategy and even Operational departments need to cross pollinate. Job descriptions need to change in order to encourage collaboration. The free sharing of ideas, the explosion of new tools and comprehensive nature of great campaigns can only be achieved when everyone sits around one table with a clear understanding of the organization’s objectives.

Storytelling is a competency.

This recurring theme transcended just about every presentation and General Session during the conference and was, in fact, the theme of SHSMD’s Bridging Worlds for the Future of Healthcare. Storytelling is as old as time and it has tremendous power to advance a message.

Our employees and physicians can be our greatest assets when seeking and sharing stories. No one knows your organization better, and keeping them informed and engaged in the dialogue is step one.

That said, not all stories are created equal. Companies that cultivate authentic stories should focus less on telling customers how great they are, but instead illustrate for customers how great they can be through story. It can sometimes be more challenging to find them, but stories that are unique and offer some kind of twist to keep the audience interested/surprised/engaged make the greatest impact. You want to tell stories that people will remember.

Different is the new normal.

Whether approaching a new campaign, redesigning our systems of care, or customizing a message for five different audiences; we need to think differently about the approach we take and the ways that we measure success. We are writing the story of innovation with every new tool and tactic we employ.

This experimentation is made richer when we’re able to share, discuss and learn from one another. Perhaps this is the greatest value of a gathering like SHSMD 2015. Many thanks to the organizers for creating an informative and engaging conference.

Making Connections and Connecting the Dots

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point

Whether helping my kids with homework or coaching a client on an upcoming speech, I am constantly reminded of the many applications for the art of storytelling.

My middle schooler began her U.S. History curriculum this year with a unit on the events that lead up to and have followed the September 11 attacks. Once complete, the class will go back in history and progress chronologically for the remainder of the year. So why start with 9/11?

While current seventh graders were not born at the time of 9/11, this event was so significant to the people surrounding those kids – parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. – who all have a relatively vivid recollection of that time. Like so many sentinel life events, people can easily recall where they were, how they responded and the many milestones that have passed as a result.  Kids today, whether they were born and directly remember or not, continue to be impacted by the events of 9/11.

One of the class assignments involved interviewing people about their 9/11 experience. My daughter and I talked at length about the different people impacted and developed a long list of people with truly compelling stories to tell. Some narrowly missed the attack; some were so impacted it changed the course of their career into one of military service; some were present in New York City as the day’s events unfolded – bearing witness to unspeakable horror and true heroism. These individuals all have stories that are all the more powerful when told in the first person. I have to believe this seventh grade U.S. History teacher understood that when issuing this assignment.

How is this relevant as a business application?

Whether conveying data and analytics or trying to train a group of employees, creating a narrative can transform ‘information’ into a ‘memorable moment’ that applies to just about any professional setting.

Asking yourself why you are in business will help you nail down the desired result. The course you take to get accomplish your objectives may take many forms, but engaging through stories provides the kind of context that allows your audience to develop more of a connection to the message. Use the data and the business information to support the elements of your story that will draw a more emotional reaction.

I’m not suggesting that you need to make stories emotional. Examples from real life, humor, personal reflection, comparisons: they all represent different styles that can used to develop your story, and when done well, work across a variety of professional settings.

In addition, when you create a story you are more likely to stay on message. Memorizing points on a slide or a written speech is a challenge for the most polished presenters. Giving someone a story to tell will always have a more natural feel and flow and makes the presenter more comfortable.

One example: A tale of woe

Talking about customer service and sharing a list of tips for improvement can be helpful and informative, but wrapping those same elements into a narrative that illustrates an example of really good or really bad customer service can better demonstrate the real world application of customer service tips.

Telling employees to never be rude (ever) when face-to-face with customers seems like an elementary tip. Most of the audience is going to think, “Of course I would never be rude to the customer.”

Insert story here: If I retell my weekend experience from a favorite restaurant that let me down and why, then the audience can better grasp what I mean when I label something rude. In this case, I had a reservation discrepancy (I arrived before 7:00 p.m. believing that to be my scheduled reservation and they had me down for 7:30 p.m.). Honest mistakes happen and no one is perfect, so I accepted some culpability and was willing to patiently wait out the 30 minutes.

However – this being a small restaurant – I was able to see not one, but four open tables that would have accommodated my party of four. After 15 minutes of waiting, I asked the hostess about the open tables. I fully expected a logical explanation about why they were being held open. But what I received was a sigh and an answer that went something like, “I have your reservation for 7:30, so according to my watch we’re still ahead of schedule.” She did not seat my party early and all open tables remained so well past my recorded reservation time.

I’m not a squeaky wheel and I try in most cases to be as patient and understanding as possible, but I was prepared to (and eventually did) spend over $400 on this one meal. Food was excellent and our servers were attentive and helpful throughout the meal. That said, I will not be returning and I did let the management know of my experience in a letter that followed our visit.

What’s more is that I’m sure the hostess would not have interpreted her own behavior as rude, based on her belief that she was right and I was sat by 7:30 p.m. But if you build you business on going above and beyond for your customers (as this restaurant claims), then my experience represents a complete fail. Stories can help demonstrate some of these nuisances in a way that simple instructive lists cannot.

How can your business use storytelling to be more successful? I’d love to hear your story…

Stories can Illustrate, Teach and Keep us on Point

Create a Plan…then Work the Plan

All too often, I talk with someone in need of communication support and they are thinking very tactically. That is, they know they want social media posts or they know they want a video or blog post, but they are not stepping back to look at the bigger picture first.

Effective communication is so much more than just the message or just the medium for delivery. The best communication starts with a plan. Knowing what you want to say and to whom your message is directed are some of the most important considerations. Are you ultimately addressing several audiences with similar, but tailored messages? Is social media the only and/or best channel for the message? Or are there ways to incorporate several layers of communication to have even greater reach?

Beginning the process by considering the right questions will help to inform your best strategy and, from there, the tactics that will support a campaign’s success.

That is not to suggest that you shouldn’t experiment along the way. Some of the best examples of effective communication have come from brave professionals (or amateurs) who took a risk that paid off. But to try and synthesize the next great viral post should really not be the goal. Your time, talents and energy are best spent rooted in the fundamentals of a solid plan.

Think of it as the blueprints for a house. Considerations for quality materials and adherence to code come first. A solid foundation should support the structure. What color you paint the walls or what furniture you use to decorate are expressions of your personal taste and preferences – and they are the visible results (the tactics, if you will) – but your house actually started with a plan that specifically detailed how the materials would come together.

Define the goal

How will you know if your business objectives are being met if you haven’t defined them in a plan? Whether you’re trying to increase awareness, generate investor interest, inform a specific audience, or drive business, it’s important to be fully aware of the desired outcome.

Craft the message

I often find the process of discovery that is involved in planning is also where you begin to see a storyline come to life. The context of a project, especially when working as a consultant, helps to frame the message and gives a real sense of purpose to a plan. Deciding what to say and how to make content compelling for its intended purpose is equal parts science and art.

Know your audience

Who are the influencers and how do you reach them? Does your business rely on referrals, or is it a direct marketplace where consumers make the choice? Business communication can be inward facing or external and the message content and tactics need to take all these factors into consideration while building the plan.

Measure success

A blog post can be a really effective tool way to tell the story, but if your business objectives are to increase market share then one blog post may not be the best tactic in isolation. How will you know its reach? And how can you connect that tactic with your desired outcome?

It’s important to know what tactics worked or didn’t (and why) if your business is looking for long term success. When you think about measurement as part of the planning process, you are putting yourself in the best position to understand the return.

Work the plan

Staying the course is sometimes the hardest discipline once a communication plan has been created. Course corrections are expected, but you should not abandon the plan if its grounded in sound business logic.

A multifaceted plan that includes several supporting tactics and clearly defined milestones over time is much more likely to draw the results to support a business. It may take some time in development, but the rewards are often that much richer.



Create a Plan…then Work the Plan

What’s your story?

Solid business planning involves setting goals and hopefully building a cache of accomplishments. As companies large and small do great things every day, why do we only hear about a very small percentage of these great works? Even an organizations’ own employees – a group that should be company ambassadors – often have a general lack of awareness. Why do some companies grab the spotlight while we never hear about others? Why does it feel like no one knows?

The difference is often in our ability to weave these accomplishments into a meaningful narrative. Telling a story that illustrates success and makes people care can influence. Rather than just saying you accomplished a goal and hoping that is enough, businesses need to be able to understand how they achieved success. What were the critical factors that contributed to success? And what was the impact – on customers, on staff, on the community?

Understanding the answers to some of these basic questions can help translate even the most complex or specific business objectives into a story or anecdote that has real staying power.

What’s your story?