Exceptional storytelling and effective learning lead to transformative change
Storytelling is an ancient art that has endured through the millennia because it has the power to capture the imagination, demystify complex issues and create meaningful connections between people with different experiences, insights and perspectives. That’s why in today’s evolving cultural landscape, it has become a critical part of shaping an inclusive workplace culture.
In this article, we’ll explore how exceptional storytelling and effective learning combine to create transformative change that can lead to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.
Why personal storytelling is a critical part of communication
There are many different types of storytelling, and among the most powerful is a story told by a person sharing their personal account. Why? Because when we listen to someone tell their story, we are temporarily transported away from ourselves to experience their reality. We live through their words, feeling each moment, understanding the nuance of the situation and connecting to that individual at a deeply human level.
Their story paints a very personal picture in our minds. We are suddenly able to envision life from a new and different perspective. And in so doing, that person engenders our empathy and understanding.
Elements of great storytelling
Perhaps the most incredible thing about stories, especially personal accounts, is that they enable us to learn without even trying. Stories make learning easy. They are effortlessly memorable, enabling us to retain knowledge in a transformative way. All that is needed for effective learning is the ability to listen and open our minds broadly enough to accept another person’s truth.
But it’s how the story is told and its overall authenticity that makes the difference. So what makes an exceptional personal story? Best-selling author and Harvard instructor, Carmine Gallow has identified these three elements to personal stories that can move hearts and minds.
- Incite an incident—This is where the storyteller shares their experience and describes a specific incident.
- Share a personal transformation—Here the storyteller makes a personal connection and shares how their experience changed them in a profound way.
- Offer a life lesson—The storyteller helps the listener to understand how their experience connects to “a broader context in the listener’s world.”
How stories can break through barriers, enable learning and create connections
It’s natural for us to relate to people who are similar to ourselves. But it’s less comfortable, and can even be fear-producing, to engage with people who are different. Sometimes these feelings are top of mind, but other times they may linger in the back of our consciousness. To deal with this discomfort, we may isolate ourselves from people, who are different, and gravitate to the comfort of homogeneity.
It’s easy to see how this can be a significant barrier—and in fact be antithetical to creating a diverse and inclusive environment. Resolving this issue: that’s where the power of stories comes in.
According to Vanessa Boris with Harvard Business Publishing, “Good stories do more than just create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning.” Boris also adds, “Your goal in every communication is to influence your target audience (change their current attitudes, belief, knowledge, and behavior). Information alone rarely changes any of these. Research confirms that well-designed stories are the most effective vehicle for exerting influence.”
Boris explains, “Storytelling also helps with learning because stories are easy to remember. Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found that learning, which stems from a well-told story, is remembered more accurately, and for far longer, than learning derived from facts and figures. Similarly, psychologist Jerome Bruner’s research suggests that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they’re part of a story.”
How to reinforce the power of storytelling
While stories are a great way to convey complex messages, there are ways to make them even more effective by setting the stage for learning through well-conceived training. By artfully weaving in related activities, the memorable aspect of storytelling can be enhanced and reinforced to help learners retain new knowledge.
Here are some ideas for how organizations can leverage and amplify storytelling through an immersive training experience.
1. Offer a safe space for learning
If people are put in a position where they are blind-sided or put on the spot, they will likely shut down. In their HBR article, How Sharing Our Stories Builds Inclusion, consultants Selena Rezvani and Stacey A. Gordon suggest, “The best way to create a cascading inclusion effect in an organization is to offer safe spaces where stories can be heard without judgment. This works best when psychological safety is being actively cultivated.”
Action step: Consider what method of learning is most appropriate for your organization. For instance, larger organizations may opt for online learning to create a consistent experience across the organization—thereby building a safe space for learning.
2. Put the spotlight on personal storytelling
Personal storytelling, such as first-person interviews, offer a key way to help people open their minds to new perspectives. Hearing someone tell their own story, sharing how they felt, how it affected them and what they learned creates an easily accessible path for the listener to connect the story to their own life.
After all, feelings are something that we all share. If the story is told with authenticity, it will provide an opening to empathize with the storyteller and understand their point of view.
Action step: Be sure that personal storytelling is the centerpiece of your employees’ training experience.
3. Support personal narratives with relatable scenarios
Once people hear a personal story, it’s helpful for them to envision a scenario that can apply to them in real-life. For instance, if they hear how someone felt minimized in a meeting and then this is followed up by a dramatic scene with similar circumstances, they can see more clearly how their own behavior might affect another person.
Action step: Flank personal storytelling with realistic and relatable scenarios that have broad application across the organization.
4. Surround stories with interactive exercises that show the impact of choices
After hearing a personal story and seeing a scenario with similar circumstances, the next step in the learning process is to create a situation where the learner must make choices about how they might react. This enables them to see the impact of their behavior. And if this is followed with constructive guidance, it creates the perfect opportunity for learners to see what behaviors are more likely to support inclusion and which are not.
Action step: Ensure that your training experience includes realistic scenarios, along with strategies employees can deploy in real-life.
5. Provide opportunities to pause and reflect on learning points
New ideas and ways of thinking can take time to set in. That means this kind of learning cannot be rushed. Once learners get the guidance they need to support making their choices, they will need time to pause and reflect on the stories they heard. For instance, they may need to reach into their memories to evaluate past events, their behavior at that time and then consider how they may react going forward.
Action step: Provide employees with the time they need to reflect on self-discoveries and for important learning points to soak in.
6. Follow-up, assess and create regular opportunities for learning
Once employees have completed their training experience, it should be solidified with well-thought-out follow-up. This will help to reinforce what they have drawn from the learning experience and provide you with feedback on any improvements that can be made.
Action step: Gather feedback, assess success and address any questions that may arise. Prepare a plan to repeat training at regular intervals.
How storytelling can be part of building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture
Storytelling can reveal issues facing underrepresented employees in a way that is relatable and understandable for everyone. It can make visible, what is sometimes invisible—how people feel when they are marginalized, overlooked or ridiculed. Most importantly, the listener can make a connection to their own life in a very personal way, which can lead to their own self-discoveries.
And if that story reaches everyone in the organization, that personal change can multiply exponentially as it becomes the platform for organizational transformation. Once that door is opened, organizations will be in the position to harness the true power of having a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.