In this episode of the McKinsey on Healthcare podcast, McKinsey senior partner Pooja Kumar reflects on the power and potential of using spoken-word performance to change hearts and minds in healthcare, featuring insights from actor, writer, producer, and innovator of “Poetic Voice,” Sekou Andrews.
Poetic Voice is a style of public speaking, created by Sekou Andrews, that infuses inspirational speaking with spoken-word poetry to make moving and memorable messages. Sekou speaks regularly on the topic of healthcare and about the importance of putting human connection at the heart of all caregiving.
An edited and condensed transcript of Pooja Kumar’s reflections on the topic and Sekou Andrews’ original interview follows.
Pooja Kumar: I’m delighted to share some of the highlights of Sekou’s conversation with McKinsey. Much of Sekou’s work is focused on health. Here he outlines why he chose the industry as his focus, what he is currently observing in the industry, and why it matters so much to him.
Sekou Andrews: I was engaged by healthcare and inspired to inspire folks in healthcare early on in my career. I was very conscious of wanting to make sure that I picked exactly where I wanted to use my voice. When I started meeting healthcare clients, I found myself really enjoying using my voice for this audience. It felt meaningful. It felt purposeful. When it’s nurses, researchers and scientists, physicians and surgeons, or community health organizations, I feel the impact and the ripple effect it’s making in the world more directly. So that's really why I began to push Poetic Voice into healthcare.
Pooja Kumar: I can relate to Sekou’s comments about being driven by a sense of purpose. I think many of my fellow doctors, nurses, and caregivers are also purpose-driven in this same way. What’s interesting is that Sekou highlights some of the challenges of this approach, while still acknowledging that inspiration is beneficial under the circumstances.
Sekou Andrews: It’s the people that care who are constantly plagued with the question, am I doing enough? I see healthcare folks suffering with that double-edged sword. You’re doing this impactful work because you’re the kind of person who would commit your life to it. This means you wear your heart on your sleeve, or on your scrubs, and you have to carry that burden.
As an ex-teacher, I know what it is to be on the front line. You’re doing one of the most important things in the world, and you think, that’s funny, because my paycheck doesn’t seem to reflect this. I know what that’s like, and healthcare workers have known what that’s like for a long time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, everything that was unhealthy about the healthcare industry erupted like a volcano, and healthcare workers were thrown off balance. They couldn’t keep up; there wasn’t any joy of caregiving because there were so many fatalities, so many casualties, so few masks and gloves, so little support, and so many people in the world were angry. The whole world was going through despair, anxiety, darkness, and distance.
The healthcare industry is experiencing the aftermath of it all right now. It’s taken a toll and that’s why inspiration is needed now more than ever. What people need now is connection. I think what we have lost most in this pandemic are all the ways that we took connection for granted.
That’s what healthcare workers need. It’s reconnecting back to their sense of balance, their sense of purpose, to the power their work has and the importance of what they’re doing. It’s reconnecting back to the sense of value in their work as heard from the people they’re serving.
It’s not just our hearts, our bodies, and our organs that need healthcare—it’s our minds and our spirits that need healthcare as well.
When I performed my “Outbreak of Care” poem, I had a concern that this poem was not relevant anymore. The more I began to research and talk to healthcare workers, I heard consistently from them, it’s needed now more than ever. Healthcare workers are facing the same problems they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic; they are still dealing with the stress and trauma but not getting any of the public honoring. They are not feeling seen or heard. I wanted to let all healthcare workers know, we still see you, and I did that through this poem. It’s a reminder that it’s not just our hearts, our bodies, and our organs that need healthcare—it’s our minds and our spirits that need healthcare as well.
Pooja Kumar: Sekou also talked about how messages are heard, delving further into the technique of Poetic Voice and how it can be used.
Sekou Andrews: Poetic Voice is the name of the speaking category that I created about 15 years ago. It’s the seamless integration of inspirational speaking and spoken-word poetry. As opposed to a performer, who speaks or performs, then you applaud, the spoken-word poet speaks and performs, then you applaud, and they continue to speak—it’s more like a set. I wanted to create this seamless experience where you don’t know where one part ends and the next begins; one minute there is business content, the next rhyming, then it’s a story. The variety really helps to keep the audience leaning in. It stops them from getting ahead of you.
A lot of speakers get in front of an audience and think, I’m going to talk them through my five points, using my presentation as a crutch. The audience recognizes this pattern, and two minutes later they’ve checked out. The speaker is busy with their presentation, so they don’t notice or try to reengage the audience; finally, the opportunity is lost.
When I’m constantly changing modalities and how I’m communicating, it prevents the audience from checking out. They thought they knew where this was going; however, they soon realize they don’t, and they pay attention.
People feel inauthentic in their own skin when they’re on stage or when they’re presenting to a lot of people. They are not their authentic selves. So what if you could learn from actors? This is a different way of approaching how to become an engaging public speaker. It’s not about making you a performer. It’s about what you can understand about the way that a performer approaches the stage or approaches an audience. Performers have a different mindset, and that’s critical.
If you think about a business event, what are the speakers doing before they get on stage? They might be chatting to other executives or reviewing their notes. If you go backstage at a ballet, what do you see? You’ll see dancers warming up and engaging their bodies. If you go backstage at a theater event, you’ll see actors warming up their vocal instruments. They’re warming up their entire instrument—mental, physical, spiritual, emotional. It’s a completely different approach.
So the two main differences are in how they prepare, and in their mindset. The speaker goes out and thinks, my biggest hope is that the audience doesn’t fall asleep. Compare that to the singer who goes out and says, my biggest hope is when I stage dive, they will catch me.
When I go on stage for a public-speaking event, I go out with that stage-dive mentality. I’m going to completely raise the expectation and raise the level. That is teachable to anyone.
You want to engage yourself fully so you can engage your audience fully. My goal is to put your message not just into your audience’s mind, but to put the message into their hearts, into their muscles, their hands, and their voices. Think about what music does, how music sometimes can move your spirit in a way that makes you feel you can conquer the impossible. In order to move an audience on all four of those modalities, I have to make sure that I’m engaging on all four of those modalities myself—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Pooja Kumar: I’ve really appreciated listening to Sekou’s inspirations and experiences and hope that you have also found value in learning about his motivations and journey. His reflections on the need for connection at all levels of caregiving remind us of why it is we do what we do—to make a positive impact on the lives of others through the intrinsic values of humanity, and to inspire others to do the same.