Why storytelling could be your most potent D&I tool
By Jo Faragher on 1 December 2020
As humans, we are wired to respond to stories. In fact, neuroeconomist Paul Zak claims that if we hear a story we relate to, this releases the brain chemicals cortisol and oxytocin, which in turn trigger our ability to connect and empathise with others.
For D&I professionals, storytelling can be a powerful tool in helping people better understand others’ challenges and points of view. “The business case around diversity speaks to logic and IQ, but stories and lived experience speak to the heart and our emotional intelligence,” explains Jiten Patel, director of Diversync, a D&I consultancy.
Following on from the Black Lives Matter protests and events earlier this year, sharing stories of lived experiences has been a powerful tool for organisations to help employees understand how embedded racism can be, and why action should be taken to redress the balance of opportunity. Many have facilitated conversations so that their workforce can ask questions or hear the experiences of others – Fujitsu for example held a roundtable for employees hosted by its CEO, to act as a “safe space” where employees could express how they felt. Similarly, Just Eat ran an “open dialogue day” where the entire focus was on what race meant to the organisation as a whole, with Slack channels to share experiences and to keep the discussion going.
Personal and powerful
At the Pension Protection Fund, the organisation has shared employees’ stories over its intranet to build understanding for its wider D&I strategy. “In one story a black employee described dealing with a customer whose wife became abusive and used racist language, and why the support he received from his line manager and our policy on zero tolerance was a source of comfort and empowerment to him,” explains chief people officer Katherine Easter. During Black History Month, the PPF shared nine stories of Black employees who outlined their family histories, their experience and how it shaped their career journeys. “All of our executive colleagues have reverse mentors from within our Race Action Group, and we had the idea that for Black History Month this year, we should hear stories from our own people, as this can make it more meaningful,” she adds. Feedback for the stories was positive, and some colleagues found their backgrounds overlapped or discovered new things about their work mates. “While we’re generally an organisation that wants to do the right thing, it’s important to remind people that just because there are good intentions, that doesn’t mean the system isn’t difficult for some people more than others.”
For an organisation’s most senior leaders, sharing stories can show employees a different and more authentic side, says Patel. “When we can encourage leaders to have the courage to be vulnerable, the people who report to them develop a lot more respect. Frankness and candidness engenders trust, and it’s hard to feel a sense of belonging with someone you don’t trust.” Shared experiences can also help to embed policies in a way an ‘all-staff’ email from HR will never achieve. “When something is on the back of personal experience, it resonates so much more,” he adds. For example, a woman sharing her experience of how a particular strand of flexible working policy has helped her personally will help managers grasp the importance of such policies all the more.
Bringing subjects to the fore
One area in which stories can be immensely helpful is in promoting discussions around mental health. Media agency MediaCom, for example, wanted to normalise conversations around mental health and invited well-known guests into the company’s London offices to discuss their own challenges alongside encouraging employees to share their own stories. One particular group it hoped to engage was young men, and it has worked with communications company Book of Man to offer mental health awareness events not just for its own employees but also for clients and media owners. “Engaging younger men was something we struggled with, and it was incredibly worrying because if they did speak to someone they were often at crisis point,” said Nancy Lengthorn, head of diversity, inclusion and future talent, speaking at d&i Leaders’ recent Mental Health at Work event. “When people start to hear others’ personal experiences and perspectives that has a lot of impact, particularly if it’s someone they know and respect.”
Learning software company SkillSoft incorporates storytelling into its “Leadercamps”, which focus on aspects of leading inclusively. “Storytelling is a key part of the Leadercamps; one of the best ways to learn is through real-life experiences,” explains Agata Nowakowska, associate vice president for EMEA at the company. “Not only does this involve discussion around various scenarios, but social collaboration – giving people the space to ask questions, share experiences and have tough conversations.” It’s not just about the telling of the stories, either – listening is just as important. “That’s the dichotomy of D&I, people want to feel included but also want to feel seen – to be accepted for who they are rather than being a clone,” adds Patel. Leaders listening to them helps them to feel the organisation takes an interest in their individuality, which increases their feelings of psychological safety, he argues.
More than just numbers
Jack Mizel, founder of Pride365, an organisation that certifies companies that embrace LGBTQ+ inclusion all year round, rather than ‘pinkwashing’ around the Pride season, believes storytelling can amplify insights coming from data.
“When people hear statistics, they only remember a small percentage of what they are told. However, this increases tenfold when stories are used to relay the same information,” he says. “When detailing data and data driven results, it’s important to incorporate storytelling to resonate, and connect with your audience, both logically, intellectually and emotionally. And it helps improve memory of what is being shared.” As humans, he adds, we respond to stories better than percentages and fractions and are more likely to engage in ‘active listening’ that stays with us. “At Pride365, we work with several LGBTQ+ champions, to help tell our story, and to be able to share their own. This helps our clients and potential clients not only understand what we do, but it gives them the how, the why and the who too. Our champions, and their stories, provide human elements, and give the business a face,” says Mizel. Complementing internal dialogue with how you communicate with customers is also crucial, he advises.
For data-focused and strategic D&I professionals, telling stories may seem soft and fluffy – but the evidence shows it is anything but, and can really embed empathy and inclusion into an organisation.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.