I don’t usually think of Ernest Hemingway when I sit at my computer to create healthcare-related content, but perhaps I should.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Hemingway once wrote, and man, can I relate! Having toiled in this field for nearly a quarter-century, I have come to know medical writing as a humbling craft, a career-long apprenticeship that I will never truly master. But if I approach a medical writing project as a chance to tell a compelling story, mastery may be within my sight, if not my grasp.

The spirit of Hemingway suffused the recent “Content Marketing for Healthcare” seminar, sponsored by Medical Marketing & Media. Hemingway’s words served as the inspiration for one of the speakers, Will Reese, chief innovation officer at the Cadient Group, who titled his talk, “This Baby Has No Shoes! Welcome to the Hemingway School of Content Marketing.” According to legend, Hemingway once won a bar bet in which he was challenged to write a story in six words; he responded by creating an evocative piece of content: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Reese related the tale of the bar bet to illustrate how content marketing is not an art or a science, but a craft that combines both elements. Essentially, content marketing is storytelling. “You’re never truly a master storyteller,” Reese remarked, “but you can hone the craft and get better each day.” That made me feel a little better!

Reese made the point that in certain disease states, we can get closer to creative expression with our stories. “Compelling brand stories complement customer needs,” he said, noting that creative expression has its corollary in a moral or a lesson to the story, achievement and encouragement connote emotional investment, connectedness reflects a story worth sharing, problem-solving pertains to a clear problem to solve or an obstacle to overcome, and delivery on expectations depends upon a strong opening.

According to Reese, the most powerful brand stories have the following attributes in common:
• Memorable: if a fact is wrapped in a story, you remember that fact.
• Personal: you take a personal experience away from the story.
• Shareable: it is easier to tell a story than to give someone a fact.
• Impactful: the story results in changed behavior(s), both in yourself and within the community.

As if we in the audience weren’t getting the point, Reese quoted Hemingway again: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” (The quote was supposedly inspired by William Faulkner’s comment that Hemingway never used “big words.”) It is an instructive quote for healthcare marketers, Reese observed, as we make “huge” assumptions about what people understand and how we can change their behavior. “It’s why we need simple stories and great storytellers.”

In the course of a typical day, very few of us are inclined to stop what we’re doing and read 25 pages of content. Yet Buzzfeed is adept at getting people to do just that by luring people in with “The ten best things about…” teasers. Reese said there is no reason why healthcare marketers can’t do that as well. “We have a voice, a vision, a story to tell with a brand. But people are deluged with information; no one can keep up with the information amid the brand overload.” Consequently, we must set realistic expectations in terms of how consumers prioritize health-related content in the era of omni-channel stimulus. “The story is everywhere,” Reese stated, “but 99.99% of the time, people aren’t thinking of your or your brand.” As an example, he opined that people with Parkinson’s disease do not need another site that explains the science behind the disease; instead, these patients could probably use “20 tips on how to travel comfortably when you have Parkinson’s.”

Playing on the Buzzfeed example, Reese offered five keys to a simpler story:
1. Alignment with a customer journey
2. Visual literacy
3. Health literacy (this goes hand in hand with #2: you can’t have #3 without #2)
4. A clear voice
5. A rigorous editorial process (similarly, this goes hand in hand with #4)

The editorial process involves poking and prodding each paragraph to make it better. The content marketer should not be afraid to trim content or even to “kill” entire pieces if it makes for a better story. “Be willing to try things and fail,” he told us. “It’ll make you a better content marketer.”

“If content king, context is queen,” Reese continued, noting that a story should be based on real experience whenever possible. “Being relevant and relatable makes it real for people,” he explained. “Good content has a texture to it. Bad content is like tissue: blow your nose in it and throw it away.” But how can we define great content? Reese offered the following “Quick Content Test,” in which the following components make content GREAT:
• Genuine: it comes from a genuine place.
• Relatable: the audience can relate to it.
• Easy to understand.
• Accessible: people can find it, and it’s inviting.
• Timely or Timeless: the content is evergreen, enduring in terms of emotion or human experience; “It matters to me in the moment and in the context I care about.”

Did I need another Hemingway quote just then? Apparently, I did: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Reese commented that “most brands never listen. To listen, you need to do research differently, to ideate differently. How often does content come up in focus groups?”

Reese offered another Hemingway quote: “Never confuse movement with action.” Content marketing, if treated like a craft, “is where we can take action every day,” Reese stated. To make content actionable for your organization, he said you need to educate your organization, experiment with content, create and follow an editorial calendar, align with existing key performance indicators (KPIs), and create new KPIs such as key phrases that can be branded and tracked. Making content actionable for your customers involves spelling out the intended behavior change, connecting the dots, making everything shareable, asking for feedback, and thinking serially.

Great, I thought, but how will I ever be able to write as heroically as Hemingway? But the point is not necessarily to emulate Hemingway, if I’m interpreting Reese correctly. “Find your hero moments,” Reese implored. “Ask people what they think. Find the few things you do exceptionally well and market them.” Sound advice for any craftsperson!