Storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of communication – grabbing our attention, creating empathy, and allowing opportunities for everyone to be open to new perspectives.
In our latest masterclass we explored how storytelling can help your organisation to have inclusive conversations about class and socio-economic background within the workplace.
We were joined by Simon Arrowsmith from Iambic Creative, who shared his expertise in the science of storytelling, and how it can be harnessed to support diversity and inclusion within any organisation, as well as Odo Noel, tri-chair of the Social Mobility Network at Santander, who discussed her experience of how using personal stories can drive change.
If you missed it, you can watch the recording below, and read on for our recap.
1. Be specific
When it comes to storytelling, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being too generic and trying to tell too big a story. It’s natural to assume that this approach will appeal to a wider audience, but it can actually have the opposite effect. The problem with generic storytelling is that it often lacks the specific details that help readers connect with the story and the people in it.
Being specific and detailed can actually make your story more engaging. “We hook onto detail,” says Simon, “The clearer your story is, the more people will be able to connect to it. If you’re honest other people will find their way in.”
Think about what makes you unique as an individual? What is the conflict that you faced and how did you overcome it? These are the kinds of details that will make your story resonate. Simon shared a really helpful framework to help structure your story.
When you’re telling your story, make sure to avoid exaggeration too. While it may be tempting to embellish certain aspects, it can ultimately undermine your credibility and make it harder for others to understand your experience.
2. Take baby steps
If you’re not sure about sharing your personal story, or you’re worried that shyness will get the better of you, just take it in bite-sized chunks. It’s important to start with what you’re comfortable with and gradually work your way up.
For instance, you could start by sharing one thing about yourself during a meeting or event and then slowly add more. “Don’t expect yourself to go from A-Z immediately,” says Simon, “make sure you work up to it.”
Taking small steps and setting achievable goals can help you build your confidence and increase your participation over time.
3. Recognise the challenges
Sharing your story can be a challenging and vulnerable experience, especially when it involves topics that are particularly sensitive or personal. It’s essential to define your “red lines” – what topics you’re not willing to discuss – and stick to them, says Odo. This will help you feel more comfortable and in control during these conversations.
It’s also common to experience feelings of guilt or fear of being perceived as seeking sympathy when sharing personal stories. Odo sums it up brilliantly, saying that after she first shared her personal social mobility story, “I wanted to hide under a pillow … I also felt guilty. I didn’t want it to be a sympathy story – I came from a loving family.’
We often hold back from sharing our stories due to fear of judgement or rejection. However, being courageous and sharing your story can be a powerful tool for personal growth and creating positive change. The reaction to Odo’s story was overwhelmingly positive, with people reaching out to say how much it touched them, and made them feel more comfortable sharing their own story. What was particularly great, says Odo, was people who got in touch who hadn’t personally experienced the types of challenges she had faced, but had been inspired to get involved to be part of a solution.
Sharing your story can help others understand you better and promote empathy and understanding, creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for everyone.
4. Do it together
It can be challenging to know where to start, especially if you’re not used to sharing your story with others. That’s why it can be really helpful to collaborate with someone else. “Phone a friend!” advises Simon, “You don’t have to do this by yourself.”
Consider reaching out to a friend, family member, or colleague who you feel comfortable sharing your story with. Odo initially teamed up with a colleague to tell both their stories in an interview format, which can be a great way to make the experience feel less daunting.
Even if you don’t have someone else to share their story alongside you, try practising on a friend or family member who can help you to gain confidence and share feedback.
The more genuine and authentic your words, the more at ease you’ll feel when telling your story, and the more compelling it will be. One of the best ways to do this is to try it out with other people! Experiment with different language options and find the one that feels most natural to you.
As with any skill, the more you practise storytelling, the easier it becomes.
5. Be a good listener
Listening is an essential part of effective communication and storytelling. Being a good listener involves being open to new ideas and perspectives and recognizing our own biases and backgrounds. “Notice where you are pigeonholing people and remember that that’s not necessarily the truth,” advises Simon. It’s crucial to be open to new ideas and perspectives and to be willing to change your own beliefs if necessary.
And don’t forget the usual listening tools you use in many other scenarios! Active listening and really focusing on the speaker are great ways to signal that you are engaging with someone sharing their own story, and will help to build an environment of psychological safety where people feel confident discussing their background.
One great question that we didn’t have time to answer live was about how to use stories to help senior leaders see social mobility as meaningful to them. Simon says, “My advice here is to firstly find the language style that is going to appeal to this audience. For leadership audiences I would focus my inclusion stories on how including diverse voices strengthens innovative working practices and positively impacts the bottom line. I’d also use a conflict/tension point in the story that illustrates the missed potential when people don’t bring their whole self to work – not just the personal impact on the employee, but the way this damages productivity, communication and creativity.”
Storytelling can be a powerful tool for change in your organisation. Odo has seen the mindset shift in senior leaders who didn’t previously consider social mobility or its implications – that’s now changing because they’ve listened to personal stories. One colleague emailed Odo the night her interview went live, asking ‘how can I help?’, and they are now one of the tri-Chairs of the Social Mobility Network!