The Power Of Storytelling In Sports Physiotherapy


One of the best things we can do for our patients is communicate with them well. Look at your day in the clinic: it’s talk, talk, talk! It is important that we talk well, as great communication is vital to becoming a great therapist. This is well covered ground on this site, as we have discussed the power of a great analogy and the role of communication in improving patient compliance. This article will discuss another valuable tool you have in your ‘Communicate Like A Champ’ toolbox… storytelling.

The Scenario

Well, this is not so much a case scenario as it is a daily occurrence. On a daily basis, we undertake education of our patients. As a component of this education, we often give advice about how they can improve their recovery from injury. This advice regularly includes self-management strategies and therapeutic exercises.

Thus, the scenario is you have just assessed and accurately diagnosed a patient. As any good therapist would do, you are educating the patent on their condition, including; potential causes, contributors, exacerbators, prognostic indicators and of course useful treatments. But for some reason… everything is not going to plan.

The Problem 

The problem is something that we have all seen before, despite doing everything right (so we thought), the patient just does not seem to be accepting what you are telling them. You can see by their body language or expressions, they doubt what you are saying.

As you might expect there are many reasons why they may be apprehensive in accepting your explanations, or in other words, why they may not trust you. Firstly, they may not have faith in your expertise as a physiotherapist or physical therapist. Alternatively, they may question your motives.

An important thing to remember is that these patients have pre-conceived ideas and notions about both their condition and our profession. For whatever reason some patients are apprehensive, defensive and consistently questioning the credibility of us and what we are saying.

If only there was a way to take the heat of yourself and lower the patient’s defenses….

Sports Physiotherapist | Sports Physiotherapy | Physical Therapy

A Potential Solution

In the book Influencer: The Power To Change Anything (Patterson et al., 2008), the authors discuss a technique to mitigate the two forms of mistrust that verbal persuasion may cause. They suggest that storytelling, in the form of a detailed narrative, causes even the most educated people to set aside their cynicism and critical nature as they are ‘transported’ away from themselves and into the tale.

This can be a helpful tactic if the patient does not seem onboard with what you are saying. You can simply start by saying “6 weeks ago I saw a patient with a nearly identical presentation… he was a butcher and injured himself by …. and I did this treatment ….. and he performed all of these exercises diligently … and I just rang him yesterday and he is fully recovered”. Please note, I am not advocating making up a story, but actually using your experiences with past patients as vivid and detailed examples.

The more detailed and relevant these stories are to the patient the better, as they will use their imagination to experience the narrative itself (remember patient confidentiality though). This technique is often effective in disproving counter-arguments, and often they do not even arise.

The Research

The power of storytelling in education and persuasion is quite well studied. In the book Influencer (Patterson et al., 2008) the authors discuss a trial in which information is presented to 3 groups of MBA students. The 3 different groups were delivered the information in one of 3 ways; verbal description with facts/figures, through charts and tables or via a story which contained details. On re-assessment, weeks later, recall of information was higher in the narrative group, and interestingly, the group found the information more credible than the other groups. Thus is the power of storytelling.

Physiotherapy | Physical Therapy | Sports Physiotherapist

There is also interesting research in the field of neuroscience. Stephens et al. (2010) discovered that there is a synchronisation of brain activity, shown by fMRI, between two people when one is listening to another tell a story. Check this out to read about this phenomenon. Synchronisation of brain activity… it’s hard to think of a better way to get information across!

The 2 videos below also touch on the concept of the value of storytelling in communication.

What Are Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts on the idea of storytelling to improve patient understanding, compliance and satisfaction? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Looking to advertise your physiotherapy or physical therapy clinic on our new directory, which is linked to this site? Click here.

Photo CreditThe U.S. Army


Patterson K, Grenny J, Maxfield D, McMillan R. (2008). Influencer: The Power To Change Anything. McGraw-Hill

Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, Hasson U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


  1. Great post.

    A very important technique you’ve pointed out that can really bring credibility when outlining a treatment protocol or rehab program.

    This type of ‘story telling’ has been something I’ve been doing for a number of year now, however I’ve never really analysed why I’ve been doing it. It’s great to see there is a use to bringing in this type of narrative when treating.

  2. Great article and a very important component to increase client compliance and success rates!

    In the end, this type of relationship building will only help clients achieve improved outcomes and foster a better reputation of our profession in the public’s eye.

    I’ve found that one of the key components of using storytelling with clients is to make sure that your story resonates with them and that it’s relevant to their specific situation.

    And above all else, it should be real.