Steve Krizman Q&A

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I believe it was through a comment to this blog that I first learned of Steve Krizman. We share common roots in journalism. I’m so pleased to present his Q&A. If you are squeamish and/or an animal lover, brace yourself for his first paragraph below.

SteveKrizman.jpg Bio: [From Steve’s LinkedIn profile]: “I enjoy using my communication and team-building skills to bring people together in common cause for the betterment of our world. I currently lead the Integrated Communications and Brand Management team at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. The health care provider and health insurer has been reforming health care for more than 50 years, shaking the establishment by paying doctors salaries, coordinating care across all specialties, and more recently building an electronic medical record accessible to all 8 million patients.

I spent 21 years as a newspaper editor and reporter, before going into public relations and organizational communication. I earned my MA in organizational communication and occasionally entertain the idea of working on a doctorate.”

Steve’s blog is Tropes, about which he says: “Tropes are common patterns in storytelling — the hero’s journey, the turn of fortune, the three guys walk into a bar … I have this hunch that all of life’s lessons can be categorized into a finite number of tropes.”




Q&A with Steve Krizman, Question 1:

Q: How do the storytelling lessons you learned as a journalist translate into the work you now do in PR, organizational communications, etc.?

A: Once a week in the ’70s, the animal control officer in Montrose, Colo., led a few unwanted dogs into a squat brick shed, backed up his truck and connected a hose from the shed to his exhaust pipe. He gunned the engine both to speed the gassing and to drown out the noise of animals in their death throes. It wasn’t long after I described this procedure in the local newspaper that the mayor put a halt to it and a fund-raising drive to build a new animal shelter was launched.
I wrote or edited thousands of articles over 21 years in newspapers, some packed with facts and politics and some that unfolded in story. I always got more phone calls after a storytelling article, whether it be eyewitness accounts of midnight garbage dumping off cruise ships, a woman’s daily cat-and-mouse game with a stalker or the inhumane dispatch of strays. I covered city councils and state legislatures that debated the important issues, but those articles did not capture the attention or provoke an emotional response as did storytelling.
Ironically, there is more call for storytelling in organizational communication than in newspapers. While newspapers chronicle, organizational communication teams try to affect behaviors or opinions. For that, you need storytelling: object lessons, analogies and cultural narratives, to name a few. My journalistic experience gives me a good sense what will resonate with large audiences. It helps me spot a “good story” rather easily. And I have 21 years of practice in written storytelling.
But I have had to learn a lot in the 11 years since I moved into organizational communication. Analogies were not big in daily newspapers, but leaders need them to help explain complex ideas. Helping to identify and affect an organization’s culture requires more anthropology and sociology than I picked up in my newspaper days. In my last years in newspapers, we were testing new ways to visually tell stories (graphics, primarily). Now, visual storytelling in the organizational setting is multi-faceted — video, sound slides, and, yes, PowerPoint.
I feel journalism gave me a good base to branch off into organizational communication.
Q: If you could identify a person or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: We need a strong story - or stories — to make our broken health-care system more real to more of us. Facts: The United States pays more per capita on health care than any other country, yet our quality of care is among the worst in the industrialized world. Despite these well-known facts, we fight partisan wars instead of addressing the underlying problems.
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We need the equivalent of my gassed dogs story. The problem in Montrose was an overabundance of unwanted strays and lack of concern about the outcome. I could have written an article detailing the problem, but it would not have been as effective as the article that described precisely what became of the dogs that went unclaimed.
The problems with health care are so complex and experienced in different ways by so many people, it is difficult to get a good outrage going. It’s not like there’s TV footage of a broken pipe spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
A recent front-page article in the Denver Postdemonstrates that even when we make the system work better, it’s hard for the story to surface the outrageous problem that is being fixed. The article told how Kaiser Permanente patients who were given technology to e-mail their doctor with daily blood pressure results were much more likely to change their diet and keep their blood pressure within safe limits. As a result, they are 40 percent less likely to have a stroke and 25 percent less likely to have a heart attack. But here’s the underlying, outrageous problem: the vast majority of hypertension patients and their doctors will not soon get access to this technology because the dominant economic model in U.S. health care does not reward the investment. So we go on with 62 percent of hypertension patients letting their blood pressure go through the roof and risking heart attacks and strokes (the treatment of which is covered under our current economic model).
We need more stories that shine the light on things that happen when we haphazardly throw 16 percent of our GNP at an industry and don’t hold anyone accountable for outcomes. Things like post-op infections that are bad for the patient but financially good for the hospital (longer stay, more procedures, more billable hours). Or like losing a limb to diabetes because you are black and that’s just the way the odds play out. Or like hauling your sick self to the doctor’s office for a five-minute look-over instead of a phone consult because the doctor doesn’t get paid unless he/she actually sees you.
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media? conversation.jpg
A: I am an early and enthusiastic adopter of social media. I have written several blogs (currently Tropes), I Tweet (@Dialogdog), I am active on LinkedIn, Facebook and Vimeo, I check-in on Foursquare, I follow several blogs via feeds to my iGoogle page, and I have contributed to Wikipedia. I love this stuff precisely because I consider them storytelling — bits of stories that I weave together and watch others weave together into a grand narrative of our times, our selves and our beliefs. It’s real-time anthropology.
I don’t see how anyone can be successful in organizational communication and PR without participating in social media. I can’t see how anyone can be in this business and not want to. Just as I enjoyed getting phone calls after a newspaper story, I love seeing the immediate impact of my organization’s storytelling. How many people watched the video in which our sports medicine doctor talked about preparing for the upcoming marathon? What are employees saying in response to the healthy lifestyles challenge? How many prospective customers have scoped out our physician bio pages? How many people have shared our latest TV commercial? What are the comments like in that online Denver Post article?
I think a lot of people in my field have held back because they wonder whether social media will stick or because they worry about liability. It’s a safe bet that people will be talking about your company long into the future, whether that is at the beauty parlor, on Facebook or in some other venue yet to be invented. The sooner you get into the conversation, the greater influence you will have on the conversation in the future. As for liability — let’s look at the flip side, the good you and your company can do by impacting more people at the time and in the place when they are ready for your product or service.
Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: There already is greater emphasis on visual storytelling in organizational communication. The sensational success of YouTube told us that’s what the audience wants. The challenge now is using the right visual medium for the right audiences at the right time. My team is using Flip camera video — and expert editing — to develop Web-only stories that are told in a less formal context (Facebook fan page or employee intranet, for example). Higher production values are used for videos that will be shown on TV or large screens and for which polish is needed to convey our health care expertise (advertisements and patient care videos, for example).
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I look forward to what expert storytellers can do with all the visual storytelling tools now at our disposal. Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if PowerPoint were used to tell stories as opposed to displaying speakers’ notes?
Personally, I would like to explore ways to calibrate stories so they resonate with people of different cultures. Health care providers use stories and analogies to help patients understand their condition. If providers were aware of African or Latin American story traditions, would that help them frame stories that are more effective for their African-American or Latino patients?
I am currently intrigued by fotonovela technique — using photographs with comic-like dialogue bubbles to tell a story. The Mexican culture has some familiarity with this storytelling technique, and I wonder whether we can use it in health care to convey important health information.

Q: In your LinkedIn profile, you note that in your current job, you “direct a team that integrates storytelling, internal communications, marketing, public relations and multi-media relations.” Can you offer an example or two of how you integrate storytelling into this work?

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A: I direct integrated communications for the Colorado region of Kaiser Permanente, a health insurer and health-care provider. Our mission includes improving the health of our entire community, so we support many healthy lifestyles programs along the Colorado Front Range. Recently, we helped Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper launch the first-ever citywide bike-sharing program. Participants can check out a bicycle at one of 50 stations around the city and check it back in when they reach their destination. Computers on the bikes provide riders information about calories burned and carbon offsets.
We are a major funder of the program because of its obvious impact on the health of individuals and of the community. When the mayor launched the program, the Kaiser Permanente Integrated Communications team was there to help tell the story, using various media and tailoring it for our different audiences. The stories included:
  • Share-a-story. We asked people via our Facebook fan page to tell us their fondest cycling memory. They could have written one sentence to get the free bike helmet we were offering, but the 53 who responded took the opportunity to tell a personally significant story — about their first bike, about the freedom they feel, about a bad accident. More proof that people gravitate to story.
  • Video stories. Integrated Communications team members interviewed bicycle riders at the launch ceremony and put together a short video that combined the information about the bike-share program with vignettes from participants. The video was posted on our Facebook fan page and also shared with our 6,000 staff and physicians on our intranet site. Also on the intranet site was a video clip made by one of our physicians, who rode to all 50 bicycle stations in one day.
  • Twitter stories — If you consider 140-character micro-blogs as stories (which I do): Several of us Tweeted during the speechifying, sharing the story of Denver’s launch of the first-ever city-wide bike sharing program (take that, Portland). I quoted the mayor in a few Tweets, which were duly re-Tweeted by the mayor’s communications people.

All this material remains at our disposal, to be used whenever we need a story to describe our commitment to community health. For example, we have photos, videos and people stories to insert into presentations to community groups and potential customers.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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