Defining Your Story As a Patient Advocate

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

Almost a year ago, I covered the topic of motivational speaking as a patient advocate for the pain community. A lot of the information I shared dealt with how to plan and organize for advocacy, but the messaging you use is equally important. It must be specific to the audience you’re trying to reach.

I have learned that honing and defining my story is an important aspect of being an advocate. I used to spew it all out and see what sticks, but have learned over the years that when I concentrate on a few key points specific to my audience I will be a more effective communicator.

For instance, when I spoke at a rare disease event, I focused on how rare conditions have impacted me and how more rare disease research and funding are needed. At a cancer event, I spoke about my experiences with cancer and the missing support I see in that area.

There is no specific way to advocate, but there are some basic guidelines that can help get you started. The first step is finding your own voice. You want to have your own message and share your own personal story. You don’t want to copy or act like someone else. I have told newbies, “Don’t try to be me. You be you, and I’ll be me.”

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When honing your message, start with deciding what you want to talk about. Sometimes it is important to go wide and broad when talking about chronic pain, but other times it’s important to discuss your most pressing experiences with a specific disease or challenge.

There are thousands of issues that need working on in the chronic pain world, from access to medication to finding a compassionate doctor. Defining the issue that’s important to you is key. You must be able to explain your point of view and back it up with data and science that is relevant and recent.

Keep it simple. Think of 2 or 3 takeaways for your audience. What should the listener walk away knowing when you are done?  In many cases, such as testifying at a legislative hearing, you’re only going to get 2 or 3 minutes to speak. Respect the time limit and practice beforehand so that you can explain and emphasize your takeaways. Leave a few moments for follow up questions.

Remember, you are not sharing your message to prove someone else is wrong or to undermine them. You are there to share your story and the challenges that affect your daily living. I do a lot of reality television, and producers always remind me to only talk about what I want to bring attention to. If I talk about someone else’s message, it takes away from my own. Tell them who you are, how you are affected by a policy, and what can be done to solve it.  

Your personal story should be about you and what you have gone through. If you’re a caregiver whose spouse was put through step therapy and had delays in getting proper medication, how did that affect you?  What did that delay in care do to you? Why do you care about this cause? Let the audience know why you care.

Next, give them the takeaways. There should always be “an ask.”  What do you want your audience to do for you?  A state legislator may be voting on a specific bill that you want them to support or vote against. Or tell your audience how they can help spread awareness and advocacy.

Keeping the requested action positive is important and keeps it moving in society. You could ask other patients to discuss an issue with their friends or to be sure to vote. You can ask for just about anything, but be as specific as possible. If you are asking for others to make a change or believe in something you advocate, then you must show some expertise on the topic.

Understand that some words are trigger words that should be avoided. Instead of talking about how hard it is to get “opioids” or “narcotics,” say patients need better access to “pain medication.” They are all descriptors of the same thing, but have very different meanings and connotations.

It takes a lot of courage to share health topics and challenges we’ve been through. Many advocates, including myself, are ridiculed and shamed. PNN had a great column on this last month, “Stop Shaming Pain by Mia Maysack. As Mia explained, you may encounter negativity even within our own pain community.

Your story should take others on the journey you’ve been on. Think about how you want your audience to feel and what your end goal for them will be. Being yourself, being vulnerable, and sharing your story are powerful ways to engage the public and create change.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.