RxDM Storycast Ep04: 3 Writing Books for Pharma Marketing Storytellers

Podcast version:

Storytelling. In concept, it’s easy. In reality, it’s a true challenge that spans generations. People go to college to learn how to do it, spend untold hours trying to do it, and even more hours trying to wonder why they’re not better at it.

Now, to make it more difficult, it’s part of your day job. Yes, fellow marketer, you need to be a marketing storyteller on a deadline.

Just to add to the pressure, let’s add the challenge of storytelling in a regulated industry. You don’t just work in marketing, you’ve chosen healthcare marketing, which means you need to create stories around any number of medical, legal, and regulatory challenges.

Don’t panic, fellow storyteller. There’s help out there, and most of it is available at your local bookseller (shop local).


Storytelling as a Job Skill

We hear people talking about storytelling and how we all need to become better storytellers. Specifically, that to be effective marketers, we need to be more effective, creative, and compelling storytellers. And, if you hear this at a pharma marketing conference, you write the word “story” in your best notebook. You circle it and put a star next to it.

When you get back to your desk the next day, you realize that storytelling is significantly more difficult than writing down the word and circling it. That’s actually a good thing. If you think telling stories is easy, you’re probably not telling very good stories.

Now that storytelling is part of your marketing responsibilities, you may need a good starting point. That brings me back to your bookshelf, which is probably lined with the latest marketing books on strategy and tactics. Good.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll skip the marketing books. Let’s just focus on books about writing.

Like many of you, I am passionate about my career as a pharmaceutical marketer and content strategist. But by night, I am a comic book writer and educator. I spend a lot of time thinking about the challenges of writing stories in a sequential visual medium. Hence, I own a lot of books on writing to keep me fresh with my career and my creative night job.

Like you, my shelves are jammed with great books that I’ve read or intend to read. I’d like to share a few good books on writing and storytelling. (There are plenty more to discuss, but I’ve read that listicles do really well and “3 Writing Books for Pharma Marketing Storytellers” is a moderately good title.)

As you go through this list, you’ll notice that there’s not one traditional marketing book or any books on healthcare. This is not a mistake. The idea here is to share books on writing and storytelling. These books will increase your awareness of writing and storytelling, which you can apply to your role as a marketing storyteller.


STORY by Robert McKee

Why? Story structure matters.

This is is a life-altering book for me. It literally changed the way I thought about planning and structuring my writing. The core principles of story structure are explained in terms of writing for film, a structured and restricted medium. Many people find McKee’s method to be too restrictive, but I found it to be incredibly helpful. Unlike a novel, a screenplay needs to fit within a range of pages. McKee gives the reader useful techniques for staying within page count.

Why Pharma Marketers Should Read It: McKee’s method outlines a hero’s journey, which may match the user journey for your target audience. The book outlines story in a 3-act structure, which is how many user journeys are outlined.

The most important concept is around “conflict.” Specifically, it is conflict that propels action and makes a story worth telling. Pharma marketers often start with data and try to mold it into a story. This is a big mistake. Story is always focused on the hero and the challenges that hero faces. Conflict and resolution depends entirely on the empathetic POV of the hero.

Let’s say you’re creating patient-education content. Put yourself in the patient’s personal journey. Imagine the worry and confusion that comes with being diagnosed with a health condition. That’s a “conflict” in McKee’s theory because it’s a barrier to the hero’s journey. If your brand has a treatment that can help the patient with their condition, they will want more information. Consider the type of information they will need. Your job here isn’t to “tell a story.” Your job is to contribute to the hero’s story…and the hero is the patient, caregiver, or healthcare professional.

If the patient faces a conflict (a health issue that needs to be addressed), your brand may be part of the “resolution” that gets them past that one particular conflict. The book “Story” by Robert McKee is a must-read title for storytellers eager to learn story structure, character POV, and story arcs.

For pharma marketing professionals, “Story” can reveal the story arc of your patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. It’s a long, detailed exploration of human narratives that can inform your overall storytelling strategies.



Why? Clear writing matters.

You write. I write. We write. Everybody writes. Writing is a basic skill that we all need to master to be effective in the modern business workplace.

Every time you compose a new creative brief, PowerPoint presentation, tweet, or email, you are reapplying for the job you currently have. Why? Because people (including your boss and coworkers)  judge you by your writing. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Your writing matters, even if you aren’t the lead copywriter for the company’s new consumer-health website. Your input on the strategy, the tactics, and the creative brief are valuable to your team. Sharing your ideas in writing will help you shape the outcome of the actual work product.

Why Pharma Marketers Should Read It: Handley helps remove the fear of writing for people who don’t believe they are good writers. Her book offers a “back to basics” approach to writing. If you feel nervous about the quality of your writing, Handley’s upbeat advice will improve your confidence and get you back to the keyboard.

Pharma marketers know that precise language is essential to healthcare communications. Handley’s book offers practical guidance on how to craft better sentences and calls to action, which is particularly challenging in healthcare writing.

You may not be writing the actual website, but you may be part of the strategy team that gives input to the copywriters. Your writing needs to reflect the clear vision you have for your brand messages. You’ll have fewer rounds of revisions, if you start with clear instructions and an effective creative brief.

“Everybody Writes” builds your confidence as a writer. It’s one of those writing books that you should review once a year, just to brush up on the basics. It has earned a place on my shelf right next to the legendary The Elements of Style.


ON WRITING by Stephen King

Why? Character development matters.

You need to write more. In general, we all need to write more, but if you are working as a marketing strategist in the modern digital world, you need to write more.

Many people stop writing after their formal education is complete. They take the required courses (including Creative Writing), earn the diploma, and never write again. This is a mistake. Writing is a skill that requires somewhat regular practice.

Writing fiction starts with a clear, empathetic point of view (POV). This POV propels a story narrative. Good writers learn how to craft and control a character arc through the entire story.

Why Pharma Marketers Should Read It: King’s book is focused on fictional characters, which are based on actual humans like you and me. To create strong stories, you must understand real people. If your characters are simply archetypes designed to follow your rigid outline, you’ll end up with a story that feels hollow. The book is packed with practical and philosophical advice that will inspire you to return to the keyboard with passion and enthusiasm.

Writing fiction reminds you to unpack the personal stories that drive your characters to action. For me, writing fiction has always grounded my non-fiction writing in healthcare.

In real life, people aren’t their disease or health condition. They are people living with a health condition. Try to imagine their lives prior to being diagnosed and how their treatment impacts them as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, best friends, husbands, wives, and any other social designation. Ask yourself, “how does it feel to be that person?”

When you write fiction, you create a backstory for your character. It’s important to understand where the character has been, since that guides how the character will react to challenges. It’s the same with real people.

I’ve seen many brand teams that start and end their content with the point of treatment. That may be the point of contact for the brand, but it’s not the only thing happening in the life of the patient, caregiver, or healthcare professional. Content should be relevant to the needs of the target audience in a way that is empathetic to their overall experience with the health condition.

Nothing is happening in a void. Writing and reading fiction reminds us that there are always multiple storylines and POVs in every story. “On Writing” reminds us that we need to be writing and reading on a regular basis to stay mentally fresh and agile. That kind of exercise keeps us agile as we create marketing stories to support the informational needs of our patients, caregivers, and professionals.

King’s book is a call to action to the keyboard and to the printed page. He wants you to read more and write more. Hey, I want you to read more and write more too. Even if you don’t pursue writing and publishing as a career goal, it’s part of your care and feeding as a marketing professional.


Ready, Set, Write!

As a marketer, you know that you need to become a better storyteller. I hope this brief list helps. These are significant books on my personal bookshelf. Well, unless I’ve taken the book off my shelf to give it to a friend or coworker. In that case, I usually buy another version when I get a gift card to Barnes & Noble.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of good books. It’s just a few books that may help you get back to basics in writing and storytelling.

I’m always on the lookout for books to help me improve my craft as a creative copywriter and marketing storyteller. Let me know what books you recommend to be a better storyteller and/or writer.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer. 

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