Then we’ll begin… Storytelling is a powerful tool for businesses, especially in health and safety. How can professionals use it wisely?
As a former scriptwriter on Coronation Street and EastEnders, David Mansell, now creative consultant at Tribe Culture Change, knows the power of stories. ‘We’ve been telling stories for as long as we have had language,’ he says. ‘We think in stories, remember using stories, learn because of stories and turn our own experiences into stories.’
Take gossiping, for example. In 1997, researcher Robin Dunbar found that as much as 65% of people’s conversations could be defined as gossip, and stories, as US psychologist Jerome Bruner put it in 1986, ‘are about 22 times more memorable than facts alone’.
‘Stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that we witness or experience,’ David says. ‘We’re thrilled by James Bond because he tracks down a super-villain. We remember them precisely because they inspire these strong emotional reactions. If we’re truly swept away by a story, this makes us more likely to embrace the ideals and messages that it is promoting.’
What’s more, they even have a physical effect on our bodies. Neuroscientist Uri Hasson has uncovered a process called neural coupling, in which the same areas of the brain are active in both the person telling the story and the person listening to it. ‘That’s a pretty strong connection between speaker and audience,’ says Hari Patience-Davies, storytelling coach and co-founder of Patience Davies Consulting.
‘Storytelling also affects your brain chemistry – good stories generate oxytocin, which is the empathy hormone. When you’re enjoying listening to a story, your brain also generates dopamine, providing the same hit we get from great food or good exercise or sex. So it’s no surprise that good storytelling can be a pleasure to listen to.’
Business narratives: The power of stories
‘Our thoughts are stories or parts of stories – we are running narratives in our minds every day,’ says business psychologist Dannielle Haig.
‘Our life is one long story. Humans are natural storytellers, it’s how we connect with our past, our identities and it shapes our purpose as groups and gives us a sense of belonging.
‘Being a storyteller in business allows people to connect with employees and clients – humans are compelled towards stories as they bring language to life and create a common experience that builds a natural connectivity with others.’
She adds: ‘The power of storytelling cannot be understated, and it is the reason why businesses need to make their values and mission statements public, so that everyone knows the story behind the business. If successful it will mean they connect with the brand on a cognitive and emotional level. The most successful companies have a strong narrative, a story, which appeals to and binds staff and clients or customers alike.
‘When you understand the power of storytelling, the igniting of the imagination, you understand how powerful it is to use as a tool for persuasion. It is an art form and it is why the best public speakers have “their story” which they always use to build a bond with their audience.’
Dannielle Haig is director and business psychologist at DH Consulting.
More than words
It isn’t a new concept. ‘Humans have been telling stories for at least 44,000 years that we have evidence for,’ Hari says. ‘But what falls under the umbrella of “storytelling for business” are what might previously have been called presentation skills, communication skills or even leadership skills.’
US multinational Walgreens Boots Alliance – which owns pharmacies Walgreens and Boots – hired Suzanne Barston in 2019 as global director, corporate storytelling and social media, to ‘focus on corporate storytelling’, having already established a ‘rich history of storytelling’ through its employee magazine and intranet. ‘Being a diverse, global workforce, stories are really important to help all of our team members to understand what is happening across divisions,’ she says.
During the pandemic, the company found ‘powerful stories of people in every division being truly heroic, and there was a certain sameness to their experiences – a pharmacist volunteering for the first COVID-19 testing efforts in London was living a similar reality to one in Chicago doing the same’, Suzanne adds.
Storytelling also affects your brain chemistry – good stories generate oxytocin, which is the empathy hormone
The pandemic has also shown how data is used in storytelling. ‘Data can help to paint a fuller picture that is better understood by a recipient than a series of vague statements,’ says Rebecca Matts, an interim head of corporate affairs who works with business leaders to develop stories that communicate the ‘why’ in a corporate initiative. ‘Data can be translated to an image to support words in the story, or remove the need for words altogether, which is especially helpful when dealing with multiple languages.’
She says the outbreak has also shone a light on health and safety, for everyone: ‘The events and actions surrounding the response have not only been sobering but universally engaging. It’s now a question of using that momentum in a sensible way.’ But it’s important to remember that ‘health and safety is about people, so stories about people should feature, not technical know-how’, she adds.
Case study: Port of London Authority
Governing the 95 miles of the tidal Thames between Teddington and the sea, one of the many responsibilities of the Port of London Authority is to keep commercial and leisure users of the river safe. The organisation carries out around-the-clock boat patrols, regulates vessels’ navigation within byelaws, operates vessel traffic service centres and provides the pilotage service for the Port. Of its 400 employees, 100 are marine pilots.
As the authority’s head of health, safety and wellbeing, Stuart Pollard (pictured above) takes an approach that encompasses innovation, change and collaboration. ‘To be able to communicate effectively, you have to [come up with] the ideas that promote health and safety, engaging people to become involved,’ he says. ‘They have to see it, feel it, and in some cases touch it before they take the plunge, but a few individuals will never accept change.’
The authority worked with Tribe Culture Change to develop a story, called Turning the Tide, for new starters to understand the importance of safety behaviours by creating their own storyline – much the same way as Charlie Brooker’s 2018 interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch allowed viewers to make decisions for the main character. ‘Make a different choice and it takes you on a different path,’ Stuart explains.
‘The story was made more immersive by putting sections of the session into 3D and on a virtual reality platform, so the wearer could make their choice with no outside influences,’ he says. ‘Your story, your behaviours, your outcomes. What better way to see if you have common organisational behaviours that can help to support a “just culture” approach?’
Animating safety discussions
One example of how a compelling character can be used to tell health and safety stories is Napo, an ‘indestructible and everlasting’ cartoon character who features in dozens of award-winning short, silent films about the issues that people come across at work, created by Peter Rimmer. ‘Effective storytelling can improve workplace safety,’ he says. ‘In an effort to better engage employees, many employers are using storytelling techniques in their health and safety discussions.’
The cartoons are used around the globe for training, education and awareness by companies and institutions. ‘The non-verbal language of Napo makes the films suitable for a broad audience,’ Peter says. ‘Ideally they should be followed by a discussion, but we have also seen Napo work successfully on public transport in Athens, Bilbao and Santiago in Chile.’
Walgreens Boots Alliance has completed a four-part series of stories about a team that looks out for the health and safety of US team members and customers – ‘showing the heart and soul that they pour into their jobs’, Suzanne says. ‘That helps employees to understand what is happening behind the scenes, so they can feel confident that someone has their security top of mind at all times.’ Even so, she acknowledges that storytelling can’t replace the ‘clear instructions and guidance for employee health and safety’ that are needed, and the most common safety stories are about when things go wrong.
‘Sometimes it’s all too easy to show safety stories that end in accidents while trying to “overcome obstacles”,’ David says.
‘Evoking powerful emotional responses can have a long-lasting impression and achieve the warning you require. Negativity, I believe, should be balanced. If you want to promote a positive environment, limit the negative feedback and negative storytelling and give twice as much positive feedback’. (See Using stories to drive culture change, below.)
Top tips: Using stories to drive culture change
- Change is always about people. ‘A series of clever communications or senior diktats won’t bring about change,’ says interim head of corporate affairs Rebecca Matts. ‘You have to build the relationships and take time to understand what is and isn’t working well to motivate colleagues to do things differently.’
- Use stories to illustrate where an organisation is or was (its crisis), what it will look like if it doesn’t change, the steps it needs to take and what it will look and feel like afterwards, she says.
- Create a vision for the future. ‘Identify what the company and its team will be able to do at the end that they couldn’t do at the beginning,’ David Mansell at Tribe Culture Change says.
- Develop a portfolio of stories that paint a picture of the culture you want. ‘They should be a mix of “excellence stories” about how obstacles were overcome to get safety right, and “incident stories” where you learnt from mistakes,’ he explains.
- Turn anecdotes or reported actions into rich stories. ‘Take what you learnt and make it into a compelling story that will evoke emotion and be easy to retell,’ David says.
- Turn them into tangible assets. ‘Use them to create video blogs, leadership storytelling, re-enactments, documentaries, huddle cards and talking points,’ he suggests.
- The strategy is embedded when people are using stories to illustrate their points, David says. ‘They will be used as a reference for decision-making and people will be freely sharing their own stories in everyday conversations.’
Finding ‘sticky’ stories
While OSH professionals are well equipped to create the procedures and policies needed to keep people safe in the workplace, their role also requires them to put ‘energy into “selling the message” – to raise awareness of risk and promote the right behaviours to drive an excellent safety, health and wellbeing culture,’ David says.
So in the same way that stories reinforce a brand’s values without its audience feeling like they’re being sold to – look at how the John Lewis Christmas advert evokes emotions in people every year – they can also reinforce positive messages about engaging with health and safety. ‘Part of using narrative to sell brands is to encourage people to be part of their “tribe” because stories clearly demonstrate “what’s in it
for me”,’ he adds.
Nevertheless, what stories don’t do is guide decision-making. ‘Instead, they are useful frameworks for leadership teams to strip away the corporate noise and help them to be clear on the first principles needed for the outcomes they desire,’ Rebecca says.
Hari agrees that stories can ‘help you make a more effective argument for the decision that you think should be made’. She adds: ‘Don’t be afraid to mine your personal history for good stories.’
Rebecca thinks people should ‘stay curious and ask a lot of questions’ to actively seek stories out. ‘As human beings we also like to learn from others so stories about people are very effective,’ she says.
Walgreens Boots Alliance similarly takes an ‘audience-first’ approach to finding the stories it tells. ‘This means we look at each [social media] channel and determine who we are talking to,’ Suzanne says. ‘We know that employees are reading and engaging with us outside of the intranet and internet – they are a primary audience on LinkedIn and Instagram, for example.’ The company has a hashtag, #WeAreWBA, which is the ‘ethos that informs our employee storytelling’.
Business services company Lloyd’s Register encourages staff to post explanations of their accidents and near-misses on company social media platforms.
‘Most stories people would tell in a work context are very short,’ Hari says. ‘They can be as sparse as something like: “I remember when I was working at [previous employer], we faced a similar challenge. What we did was [solution] and I really think that could work here.” In doing this, they provide critical information, and if your audience is interested you can go into more detail. There’s a perception that telling a good story takes a long time but that doesn’t have to be the case.’
As David puts it: ‘The story machine helps you to form order from chaos, to lead your listeners to draw their own conclusions, to develop empathy, resolve problems and find solutions.’
Image credit | Shutterstock
The IOSH competency framework
The IOSH competency framework stresses the importance of communicating effectively, inspiring and influencing in the role of a health and safety professional: iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework