Harnessing the Magic of Storytelling for Persuasion and Safety Leadership

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 048

Oct 11, 2023

Safety Leadership: The Power of Storytelling in Communication

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

If you're not communicating through stories, then you're not communicating.

We're unsure who said this, but it stuck with us when we read it. It took us back to 'Once Upon a Time' when we sat around fires under a starlit sky, captivated by tales that made our hearts race, laughter fills the air, or tears flow. The flames held us in their mesmerising dance, and the words became etched into our souls.

Have we lost the art or forgotten how valuable storytelling is?

So, storytelling has allowed people to make sense of the world and derive deeper meaning from their lives since the dawn of human history. It's how we learned values and morals, stayed safe, and dreamed of a better future.

Karin hails from Australia, where Aboriginal communities excel at storytelling. They gather around, even to this day, with talking sticks that facilitate profound conversations.

We've adopted some of their talking stick philosophy for our discussions and meetings, helping the storytelling process and aiding us in understanding and explaining things that may not make sense and ensuring people's safety.

On the other hand, Nuala originates from South Africa, a place rich in amazing tribes of storytellers.

Nuala:

I remember when I was working on a diamond mine in South Africa. It was incredibly hard kimberlite, and they closed the mine in the early 1900s because they were causing too much damage trying to extract the diamonds.

However, they left behind fissures [long, narrow openings or cracks], a snake breeding ground. They filled with water when it rained, and numerous snakes would emerge. The fables and stories created to terrify children and prevent them from venturing into the pit were astonishing, but they weren't rooted in facts; they were entirely based on fiction.

They recognised the danger and asked, 'How can we keep people safe?'

Hearing those stories while working there made me realise that we do these things and share them to help each other grow and become better human beings. The oral tradition of sharing stories existed long before the idea of writing or formal communication existed.

Karin:

That just transported me back to my childhood. My family is German, so naturally, I grew up with the Hansel and Gretel stories; they were terrifying. They weren't pleasant tales; as Nuala mentioned a moment ago, they were meant to teach us a lesson or deter us from certain actions.

Thanks to Disney (Disney Plus), they've been turned into gentler stories today, but their origins were quite different, even the tale of the three little pigs and the wolf who would blow your house down.

Numerous stories like these carry important lessons within them.

Storytelling & Persuasion

[Listen at approximately 03:52]

We are discussing this today because we attended a Safety Expo a couple of weeks ago, which was quite enjoyable. One of the presenters, who excels in teaching storytelling, delivered an impressive presentation. At its core, it was about introducing a tagging system and reality.

The entire narrative was captivating.

He didn't explicitly mention tags very often; instead, he employed the art of storytelling and persuasion to gain buy-in. He imparted to us the power of how you convey something or tell a story and the significant impact it can have.

So, what exactly is the difference? And what outcomes does it yield?

When we gain buy-in, people form an emotional connection and feel like they're part of it, and they can see what's in it for them then implementing a new process, a different way of doing things, or trying something novel starts to make sense.

Simply telling someone they must do something because you've said so and they must implement it today or face disciplinary action tends to ruffle most people's feathers. They go into defence mode and think, 'I'll do as I please because there's nothing in it for me.'

But the 'Why' is the other crucial missing piece in that equation.

Persuasion, and why it stands as such a vital leadership skill (and corporate skill), revolves around making a difference and effecting change when you seek to make an impact.

We've all heard dreadful tales of change implementation, and they often fall flat because they lack the backstory explaining the reason for the change, whether it's a new tagging system or the complete integration of something else.

And when we contemplate why we use stories in this context?

Our Podcast Episodes E045 and E046 were grounded in fictional stories. They drew inspiration from a movie that sparked the conversation. Hence, we can glean insights from other stories.

In storytelling, you might not always have a relevant example in your industry. Therefore, you may need to draw upon stories from other domains, the news, or wherever you can find them to justify your need or your narrative as to why it makes sense.

For the person sharing the story, it's about forging a connection that shifts the focus from 'me versus you' to 'us.'

It's about appearing relatable:

'I am a genuine human being, regardless of my title or position, just like the rest of you I work with. When I share a story about a lesson I've learned from something I did or didn't do so well, I can expose a bit of vulnerability to show that we all make mistakes. We don't always get it right, but how we handle it matters, and this is my experience.'

What this accomplishes is it grants your team permission to share as well.

At times, you do need to issue instructions. If you see someone on the verge of injuring themselves, you won't say, 'Oh, let me tell you a story'; you'll intervene and stop the job. Remember, there's a time and place for everything.

This leads us to contemplate the three levels of the conversation matrix:

  • When does it need to be transactional?
  • When does it need to be positional?
  • And when does it need to be transformational?

Many people hear the term 'transformational' and think it might be a tad fabricated, but it may imply that you need to be persuasive and tell a story to bring everyone along on the journey.

Initially, we asked whether we've lost the art of storytelling or forgotten about it.

It doesn't come naturally to everyone.

If you come from a perspective where it's all about: 'I must achieve, I must do this, I must do that. That's wrong, that's right.' Then, storytelling takes a backseat because it becomes more individualistic, whereas storytelling is about sharing.

It's about involving everyone in that community - whether a team, a group, an organization, or you're pitching to Dragons Den - in a journey, and you aim to influence the situation before you.

In 2018, Karin faced the daunting and momentous challenge of delivering a TED Talk, and no one walks onto a TED stage without preparation. You might improvise over Zoom or in a presentation, but TED has its standards.

So, she had a coach who guided her through crafting a story that resonated with the audience and led her through a design process. She was sharing a story where careful thought was needed to convey her intentions, and this is where storytelling in business, presentations, and leadership becomes important.

It goes beyond mere storytelling for the sake of it, and she had to think about what she needed to say to get people to pay attention and what opening line she would need. So, it's about more than just storytelling; it's about crafting a narrative that grabs attention.

The title of the TED Talk was: What do you do when your life turns to shit, and you have just 64 Australian dollars? It was based on a true life moment, and at the heart of it, the whole talk was about conversations.

The Purpose of Storytelling

[Listen at approximately 09:46]

From that point, Karin discussed trips to Antarctica, penguins, and icebergs, employing beautiful imagery to take her audience on a journey. So, it all began with where she ended up, but she engaged in numerous conversations before reaching that point.

She had to guide them through the journey, and the benefit for the audience was understanding how conversations can help in challenging situations as well - she spoke about her discussions with banks because she was in a difficult financial situation (she had only $64 to her name).

Karin:

After the TED talk, a few people approached me and said, 'That was fantastic, and it made us realise that we may be facing tough times right now, but there's a glimmer of hope.'

It was all about being vulnerable. It was about displaying credibility through vulnerability.

It was a genuine experience, and at the end of that narrative, you might be requesting support from them, or there might be a call to action for them, or you could be concluding it in some way.

Every story is unique, and the objective is to gain buy-in in most cases, particularly in a business context.

Therefore, designing a TED Talk required significant time to narrate the story to an audience whose composition was not entirely clear because it could have been anyone.

It had to be compelling and engaging right from the start since I was the lead speaker of the evening.

And for those of you looking for my TED Talk, sadly, it doesn't exist.

The sound technicians on the day encountered issues, and despite their efforts to rectify them, none of the six TED Talks ever saw the light of day.

However, I plan to rerecord it exclusively for our website and retell the story - watch this space.

 

What are some of the tools that can assist people in telling better stories?

Storytelling cubes, conversation cubes, choice cards – numerous tools are available to help people open up and start speaking.

Imagine commencing a meeting with 'Once Upon a Time?'

This can significantly challenge people to step out of their comfort zones and alter the room's energy. It's a brilliant idea.

One crucial lesson we have learned is the importance of having a framework.

Karin had a board with sticky notes, large markers, and visuals. It was tucked away in a corner, just enough to help her remember key points and prompts. Until then, she had scripted her talk word for word, but there was no script on the actual day.

When it comes to public speaking training, the best impromptu public speech is one that has been exceptionally well prepared. It's about having something in the background, a framework to work with. You know that you want to start by establishing an emotional connection and evoke emotions in people, motivating them to engage in solving the problem.

What's crucial is always remembering what's in it for the audience. You may want to share your story, but what's its purpose and benefit to the people or the group you're addressing? What do you want them to do?

Some other tips and tricks regarding the TED Talk pertain to presentation tools.

Nuala mentioned the use of a black screen. When we use PowerPoint slides, we tend to overload one slide with information, but it's unnecessary. The audience won't notice the transition from one slide to the next, so it's better to have one line on one slide and then move to the next with the following line.

And let's refrain from using animations; they've been overused, leading to less-than-fantastic presentations.

Storytelling may require some practice to become accustomed to, but the best advice we ever received was to speak from the heart about something you care deeply about, as you want others to benefit and grow from it.

Consider when we should share a story versus giving an instruction.

The example at the beginning pertained to introducing a change, possibly a new process or system. Why are we implementing this?

  • Is it because someone in the head office decided it was a good idea, and now we're imposing it on people?
  • Or has there been an incident on another site or in a community that experienced a tragedy that could be a reality in our world? How do we enhance our situation?

How do we communicate that potential or that tragedy and explain that this has occurred elsewhere? How do we keep ourselves safe? We've come up with this and the 'why' behind it.

You could be about to undertake an operation involving potentially hazardous activities or tasks. Instead of simply stating, "This is what we're going to do, and we're all responsible for it," share a story or ask:

"Has anyone ever performed this task before? Have there been instances where things went wrong? Would anyone like to share their experiences? How can we learn from this as a team, focusing our minds on the task at hand, rather than simply going through the motions?"

We need to shift people's focus from perceiving it as an instruction or a directive and turn it into a conversation, a story that aids memory retention. Stories are more memorable than instructions because they establish an emotional connection.

Is it always easy to share your story?

No, sometimes it can be uncomfortable. It can stir up old emotions and trigger trauma responses. So, be mindful of that. When you ask people to share their stories, ensure it's a safe space for them to do so, and don't suddenly spring it on them.

Start by sharing your story if you're the leader or team leader. Your vulnerability opens the door to creating a safe space and grants permission for others to follow suit.

A valuable process for encouraging people to speak is the 'One, Two, Four.'

"Today, we'll be undertaking this task. I'll give you a few minutes to reflect on when you've performed this task before.

Have you witnessed or heard of instances when this didn't go well or when it went smoothly?

Next, please turn to the person beside you [going from one to two], engage in a conversation, and share your story."

Depending on the group's size, you can move from two to four, which works well. Now, individuals who were in pairs have formed groups of four. Depending on the team's comfort level, you can transition from one to two to having volunteers within the larger group share one or two stories.

You won't usually have time for everyone, but this is an excellent way to make people feel comfortable, as they've already shared their stories in pairs and received validation. Consequently, they're now more at ease sharing in front of the entire group.

This approach revolves around improving conversations for everyone. Through better conversations, we change the way you and your teams think about safety, providing a strong 'why' for what we're doing.

It's not just a whim or a great idea. It's about you because we care about your well-being and want to execute this in the best possible way.

And there's no better way to do that.

The Do's in Business Storytelling

[Listen at approximately 21:36]

If we focus on the good, it grows more and gives you oxytocin instead of cortisol.

1 - Be Inspiring

Don't just tell a story conveying facts; be emotionally compelling. Think about being inspiring and how you can connect emotionally to your audience, the person in front of you or beside you.

2 - Be clear about the message you want to portray

Try to bring it down and keep it in a nutshell. Be aware that people tell their stories differently. Some people get to the point quickly, while others take meandering journeys.

3 - Be real and authentic - make it personal

People like to hear about other people's stories and see other people's journeys. It helps them in many ways, whether validating themselves or acknowledging they are not alone in the world.

4 - Be credible - don't just make it up

You can share other people's stories or stories you've heard in the news or read in a novel but then acknowledge that that is not your story.

Be credible in what you are saying.

When you're looking at implementing a new system or changing a process, and you know that there might be a bit of resistance, go out and research, get a little bit more information that gives credibility to what you're putting forward and some weight behind it.

5 - Display the struggle between expectation and reality - let people understand your hard choice or personal struggle

There's a change you will make that you acknowledge will be difficult for you. We're all in this journey together, so how do we do it together? How do we accept the change? Let's share stories because most people have had to live through some change.

6 - For a good story, start in the middle - share the drama, then you can go to the back to the story and learnings

On the leadership program we've been running for a client, one of the things we do right up front [pre-work] is ask people to share a story, a better change they've made.

Then, we bring it into day one of the workshop, and we get people to have conversations about why they helped someone make a change and share that story.

This helps them start setting the scene and get their juices flowing around the art of storytelling in leadership when we want things to be different, which is why we do that.

From a personal perspective, we ask them what made them change because we generally find it easier to talk about ourselves, and then, on the second day, we ask them to tell a story about a change they helped someone else make.

So we use storytelling as part of the leadership program, and for a good story, start in the middle, share the drama, and then go to the backstory and the learnings, share what went wrong, what do we learn from it, and how do we go forward?

7 - Keep it simple - less is more, and people remember the heart of the story before falling asleep

Start with the drama and then give a bit of the back history, rather than providing this whole long back history, and by the time you've got to the drama, everyone's looking at you thinking, 'What is your point here?'

So we've got to keep it simple. Less is more. People remember the heart of the story long before they fall asleep. So, get to the point. Think of a good movie you've seen; sometimes, you lose interest if it's too convoluted.

8 - Your story is your gift to others

It's a gift they get to open because they get to know a little more about you. It gets to help them create a better world themselves or do things differently, and always remember that sharing stories is a gift to everyone around you.

Final Thoughts

So, how do you know you are having an impact?

Get others to start sharing stories, and if you start hearing other people sharing stories, you know you see a different way, a changed way of working or behaviours in the work site.

There's less conversational waste, so by storytelling, you get buy-in from people. Then, the next time you go around and want to make changes, it may take less time, and you can get to the point quicker because we now have some emotional connection from our storytelling efforts.

Also, you'll find people telling stories in places they didn't before; maybe in places where it used to be brash and bravado conversation, you will start overhearing stories where people are helping each other learn.

If you find this interesting and have a good story to help others have a safer day and want to share it, but you need to know how - that's what we're here for.

Reach out to us at hello@safetycollaborations.com, and let's start sharing stories and changing lives.

Resources

Relevant Podcasts

  • E021 - The Power of Language and Metaphor in Shaping Your Safety Culture
  • E044 - Compassionate leadership and Empathy: Just a nice to have or a superpower?

The C-IQ Series Podcasts

  • E038 - Boosting Conversational Intelligence: An Intro to C-IQ and Why We Love it
  • E039 - [C-IQ] Improve your odds with these 5 Conversational Intelligence Essentials
  • E040 - Crack the 3 Levels of Conversation and Boost Your Communication Skills
  • E041 - Foundation of Trust: The C-IQ Formula Every Effective Leader Needs
  • E042 - The Science of C-IQ: Unlocking Conversational Neuroscience Six Brains
  • E043 - Navigating the C-IQ Conversational Dashboard for Effective Interactions

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

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