Centuries ago when print did not exist, when paper did not exist, when composition of written language did not exist, there was something else by which history was passed on — and that was oral tradition. Spectacular stories of history were transferred from one generation to the next by word of mouth, passed down from the old to the young, and persistently down the roots of time. Eventually when historical records were able to be established, the lack of necessity for storytelling made it into a lost art. Besides storytelling to children, the art of storytelling is often not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of art in the post-modern era. My proposal to you is that there is no greater hidden agenda in the early development of a medical professional, especially for a physician, than to be the most exceptional and engaging storyteller that ever existed.
As a third-year medical student, the transition from learning basic sciences in a classroom to adjusting to the culture of clinical medicine in the hospital is steep. No longer does our education primarily come from textbooks, articles, or printed PowerPoint slides, rather our education comes from each of the stories that we hear from every single patient that we meet on the wards. Our main teachers are our patients by way of their illness progression, their sensitive and personal details, their social environment, and the relationships that we develop with them. Our job as physicians-to-be is to know everything about our patients and to the best of our ability, be able to cultivate a systematic approach in presenting our patients’ stories to our team members and medical faculty. The art of storytelling is an integral component in the art of medicine, and there are core ingredients which make a story great and a storyteller compelling.
For a story to be great, it must be easily followed by the audience. The story must have a beginning, middle, and end; it must be chronological, it must be forward thinking and as linear as possible for the audience. Details are of utmost importance, if the protagonist of a story is introduced, what did the person look like, where did the person come from, what was the person’s history — you want to know everything about that person because the story revolves around the protagonist. It is also important to set the context of the story, you want to address where the story is happening so that you can place the protagonist appropriately in the right setting.
For a storyteller to be effective and captivating, the storyteller must be able to connect with the audience. It is difficult to connect with the audience if you are staring down at a piece of paper. However, when you lock eyes with the audience and tell them the details of a profound story, in response, the audience should be hanging on every last word that you speak. Delivery is also important, the manners in which you present the story in terms of attitude, dynamics, and vocal projection are as equally important as the subject itself. A captivating storyteller is one who is able to engage and place the audience into the story.
Ultimately, to master the art of storytelling you must both master the story and the telling. It is one of the most difficult tasks of a medical student to learn a new story from a patient which is delivered in pieces, to rearrange the parts of that story, synthesize a cohesive and concise narrative, and present the story in a dynamic and systematic fashion in a way that is understood by the medical team. The greatest physicians that we encounter are also the greatest storytellers. These master storytellers have treasured countless stories from countless relationships with patients, each who have built upon the medical knowledge of the physician. For the physician who has the privilege of caring for a patient, that physician must not only know the patient’s story, but must also take that story to heart and strive to become a master storyteller.