The power of stories

'What's she on about?'

‘What’s she on about?’

It’s an hour into our presentation at an international medical conference. The room is packed and my colleagues have talked eloquently about the challenges of getting cutting-edge research evidence into medical practice. They’ve used statistics, graphs, demonstrated clinical systems and shared case studies. Now it’s my turn.

I walk to the podium and survey the hundreds of doctors before me. It’s been a long morning and I can see some people’s eyelids drooping. Others are fidgeting or fiddling with their phones. The energy is getting low and concentration is lagging. I take a deep breath.

‘Once upon a time, in the court of King Arthur,’ I say, ‘One of the Knights of the Round Table was in big trouble.’

People look up, puzzled. There are a few quizzical smiles, and a few frowns. I press on with my story about the knight who got too friendly with one of Guinevere’s ladies in waiting, and had been sentenced to death. I can see people wondering where on earth I’m going with this. But at least they’re listening.

I get quickly to the gist of the story. The Knight is sent off on a quest to discover the answer to that most mysterious of questions: what do women want? He gets a different answer every time. A designer wimple. A castle of my own, with a moat. A man who can be a troubadour in the bedroom and a champion on the tilt yard. I observe that women are almost as mysterious as patients in their desires. Finally the Knight learns his lesson – women want to be asked, to have a meaningful choice and a voice in the discussion. The same, I suggest, might be true of patients.

By now the room is alive with laughter. I move onto the science bit – the percentage of prescriptions that aren’t even collected, the proportion of patients who choose not to have surgery when the pros and cons of an operation are explained properly, the study proving that doctors make different choices for their own healthcare than they would recommend for their patients. It goes well and, 15 minutes later, I sit down in relief.

To my surprise, I see that the conference Twitter stream has positive comments about my talk – and my opening story. Several of the questions at the end of the session are for me. People didn’t mind my taking an off-beat approach to my presentation – in fact, they seemed to like it.

It was the first time I’d spoken at such a prestigious conference, and the first time I’d dared to go off-piste in that way. But I’m so glad I did. The power of stories is strong. Even sophisticated and eminent doctors can’t resist the lure of Once Upon a Time…

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