The Hard Sell for the “Soft Skill”of Storytelling

By Lara C. Kerwin, PharmD

The Problem (…and the Solution)
Because of the push for self-awareness, leadership, interprofessional teamwork, and communication training in pharmacy education1 (not to mention the changing healthcare climate and increased competition for residencies and other employment), pharmacy graduates of today require a practice-readiness that extends beyond clinical competency. Today’s pharmacy graduates must be prepared to lead change.

So…What Does Storytelling Have to Do with Leading Change?
Leading change is the ability to influence others toward a goal for the common good.2 To prepare our students for this challenge, we as pharmacy educators must “hard sell” the “soft skills” of critical reflection, self-discovery, and communication. We must expose them to learning experiences where they identify and leverage their unique influencing abilities. We must offer them opportunity to practice and structure assessments to understand their progress. To improve their ability to lead change, we must produce pharmacy graduates who are influential storytellers.

Findings in the Healthcare Arena
Storytelling is not a new concept to healthcare. Healthcare professionals have long employed narrative to exchange information, present concepts, share vision, gain buy-in, and change behavior.3

A recent meta-analysis3 and separate review4 reveal what makes a healthcare-related message convincing:

  • The story is based in critical reflection4;
  • The message is:
    • on the importance of detection or prevention instead of ending a behavior3;
    • delivered orally or by video versus a written story, and when written stories are longer rather than shorter3;
  • The audience:
    • sees personal relevance and a need in understanding the story4;
    • has repeated exposure to the story4;
    • waits longer periods between first hearing the story and providing feedback3.

So…How Do We Teach Storytelling?
In an article by Sorensen et al, a self-directed “digital storytelling” assignment was implemented in a “Leading Change in Pharmacy” elective for second- and third-year students.2 Feedback was given with a rubric and graded as pass/fail. A majority of students (n = 18) rated this assignment as “very” or “moderately useful,” and one external pharmacist peer reviewer noted that digital storytelling showed extent of student learning and demonstrated student imagination.

These findings parallel preliminary results from an elective in Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) that I co-developed for third-year students at the University of Minnesota. Drawing from our collective leadership training and experience, course instructors saw value in developing communication ability as a leadership skill with storytelling providing an opportunity for students to become acquainted with this skillset. In the course’s largest storytelling exercise, students developed a 6-minute narrative to convey personal commitment to CQI and delivered it to peers, instructors, and practitioners (the last of whom posed as prospective employers). Students were then provided feedback via graded rubric.

A Delphi5 technique (consensus set at 75%) evaluating student perspectives (n = 8) of the elective found that “applying storytelling skills in the context of a residency or job interview” and “practicing and improving storytelling skills” were both highly influential to the quality of their educational experience. Similar to digital storytelling from the “Leading Change in Pharmacy” elective2, our students wanted additional storytelling instruction and practice. Even though they received peer feedback during story development, students asked for more formal and informal feedback throughout story development and delivery.

Structuring Curricula to Teach Pharmacy Graduates to be Influential Storytellers
Storytelling is an emerging “soft skill.” Although it can be time-consuming to learn, student pharmacists consistently report its value, which is also recognized by key stakeholders.

Pharmacy educators: The charge is upon us, and a suggested framework for teaching is provided.
1) We must begin with the intent to produce pharmacy graduates who are influential storytellers.

2) Then, we must provide them with several early and ongoing opportunities in required and elective courses to develop and deliver dynamic stories that inspire action. These practice opportunities require feedback.

3) Finally, we must consider assessments which provide students facetime with simulated stakeholder audiences.

With storytelling, we have an opportunity to improve the practice-readiness and marketability of our graduates. Let’s get started.

Kristin Janke, PhD; Lindsay Sorge, PharmD, MPH, BCACP; and Todd Sorensen, PharmD are collaborators for the elective course in Continuous Quality Improvement and are co-authors on the full manuscript.

1) Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Accreditation Standards and Key Elements for the Professional Program in Pharmacy Leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy Degree (“Standards 2016”). Published February 2015. Available at: Accessed June 20, 2017.

2) Sorensen TD, Traynor AP, Janke KK. A pharmacy course on leadership and leading change. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009; 73(2). Article 23.

3) Shen F, Sheer VC, Li R. Impact of narratives on persuasion in health communication: a meta-analysis. J Advertising. 2015; 44(2): 105-13.

4) Gray JB. The power of storytelling: using narrative in the healthcare context. J Commun Healthc. 2009; 2(3): 258-73.

5) Collecting group data: Delphi technique. University of Wisconsin-Extension Program Development & Evaluation. Published 2002. Accessed June 5, 2017.

Additional Storytelling Resources

  • Simmons A. Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. New York: AMACOM; 2007.
  • Ganz M. Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power. In: Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, ed. Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action. Washing: The World Bank; 2011:273-289. doi:10.1596/9780821385050_CH18.

Lara Kerwin, PharmD

Lara Kerwin received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy and completed the two-year PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice residency with an emphasis in Pharmaceutical Care Leadership at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy.  She is an affiliate member of the Wulling Center for Innovation and Scholarship in Pharmacy Education and will soon start her new position as Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at the St Louis College of Pharmacy.  In her free time, she enjoys playing trivia and watching live music.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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