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Why Storytelling Matters in the Workplace--and How to Welcome It

Sam Bock

“Bringing your authentic self to work—we can’t do that without honoring the journeys we’ve been on,” Ana Ramirez, a senior specialist in our inclusion, diversity, and belonging program at Relativity, told attendees at Relativity Fest 2022. “But how? How do we welcome that?”

Ana was introducing a new speaker: Elena Valentine, founder and executive producer of Skill Scout Films. Elena’s company has worked with corporate clients to help their employees tell their stories in the interest of inclusion.

During the session “Creating a Corporate Storytelling Culture” (which was very well attended by an engaged, open audience), Elena talked about the value of storytelling at work. She reminded attendees that our stories are worth sharing, that our colleagues’ stories are worth hearing, and that being vulnerable in this way fosters a more impactful sense of inclusion at work—and, ultimately, better work, too.

(Elena shared some really beautiful examples of corporate inclusion campaigns, including #inclusionstartswithi from Accenture and This Is Me from Barclays—check them out if you need to sit in your feels for a minute today.)

One attendee, during the session, voiced what many of us had in mind as we listened to Elena: “Litigation has a culture of believing what people perceive about us is what they’re buying, and they’re not buying somebody vulnerable.”

How can we create room for vulnerability in an industry that is built on an adversarial system, where stakes are high and expectations are higher?

Stories Are Foundational—and Fundamentally Human

“Think back to your earliest childhood memory of what you wanted to be when you grew up,” Elena prompted the audience. For her part, she said, “I was so fascinated by the world of work. But as I got older, I realized it wasn’t about the jobs—it was the people and the stories they told that fascinated me.”

And that’s something all of us have in common.

“We are natural born storytellers. We develop the syntax of storytelling very early,” Elena explained. “We’ve been wired for it ever since we were at the fireside as cavemen.”

Typically, though, somewhere along the way between childhood and career, we lose our grip on that foundation. Why is that?

“We get nervous,” Elena said. “About making mistakes, facing consequences—we stop caring about the story and start caring more about how people react and what they think.”

Still, fundamentally, “storytelling does something to our brains.” And at work, in a courtroom or with clients, the most effective professionals lean into that truth.

Statistics and data are important; strategy and analysis are essential parts of the way we do and deliver our work. But stories are what tie it all together.

“A story makes us the human, versus just ‘the expert,’” Elena said. “It creates a sense of mystery. It’s made to stick—because audiences remember the stories they hear, not the statistics.”

Storytelling Tip #1: Start by Creating Small Opportunities for Teams to Share Stories

Building that habit of storytelling into your professional life starts with small steps. Doing this at an organizational level is ideal; when everyone feels invited to open a little window into their life, the entire team’s perspective grows and evolves. One way to start is by opening regular team meetings—internal, and external if it’s appropriate—with just such an invitation.

For example, in daily check-ins with her team, Elena asks each colleague to use the “YTBGQ method” for a status update:

  • What you did yesterday
  • What you’ll do today
  • What are your blocks (i.e., what obstacles are slowing you down)
  • What’s one thing you’re grateful for
  • What’s your quote of the day

Using this structure, or one like it, will help your team stay plugged into each other’s projects and priorities, open up opportunities to help each other remove obstacles, and get to know a little bit about each other’s daily life and perspectives.

Not a meeting in sight to invite this check-in? No problem: you can also host daily (or weekly, or whatever cadence works for you) check-ins in a Slack channel or Teams chat.

Stories Build Communities, at Work and Beyond

As an example of the kind of work she does, Elena shared a story about how she met some talented young people at a carpentry shop in Baltimore in 2011. Watching them work their trade, she was inspired by the pride they took in their work.

“You wouldn’t have known that they were out of the Maryland juvenile justice system,” she told Fest attendees. “And it became quite clear to me that you cannot be what you cannot see, and not all opportunities are created equal.”

She emphasized that we aren’t “telling stories for stories’ sake, but because we’re trying to deepen connections between people.” That’s where the real value of a storytelling culture emerges.

By “showing up without freaking out,” as Elena and Ana put it, we can get to know one another in ways that matter and make us more comfortable at work. And when we’re more comfortable, we’re more effective and impactful in what we do.

Storytelling Tip #2: Embrace Structure, Practice Authenticity, and Encourage Action

The many benefits of honest communication in the workplace are clear, from setting clearer expectations to inviting more creative ideas and encouraging retention. Storytelling offers a platform for vulnerability and openness, and is a fantastic starting point for more collaborative work.

You can optimize that starting point by keeping the stories you tell focused on humility and action, with a mission of not just better understanding your team and clients, but working better together.

Next time you want to deliver a story as part of an important project kickoff or pitching an idea to a leader in your organization, Elena outlined some key principles to help you “get personal” and guide your planning:

  • “What’s the key message?” What lesson or emotion are you hoping to impart on your audience with your story? Use this as your guiding star, start to finish.
  • “Dig deep.” There’s no need to overshare, but staying too close to the surface of your story—that is, the plain facts of what happened and in what order—will not inspire a connection with your audience.
  • “Keep it short and sweet.” Don’t ramble on and on; your story is just a part of all you’re hoping to share, and you want it to be impactful.
  • “Remember the power of visuals.” If you can leverage some visual elements—pictures, data, drawings—to help drive your story home, it’s worth the work of gathering them.
  • “Memorize the first 1-2 lines. Let the rest flow.” Elena told Fest attendees that not being overly scripted is one key to conveying authenticity and letting your personality shine.

Having guideposts like these will help you tell a meaningful story that serves an important purpose, fosters connections, and inspires action—without making the whole conversation about yourself.

Good Storytellers Make Better Listeners

Honesty and vulnerability, clear expectations, creative solutions—these are benefits to be reaped within your organization, but they’re also the fruit you want to see from healthy, engaged relationships with your customers.

In fact, connecting emotionally with your clients is an essential way to better understand (and, therefore, better meet) their needs. Employees who feel comfortable and inviting with their colleagues are more likely to feel the same with customers, and this positive relationship will help you achieve business goals, devise more strategic roadmaps, and build essential brand recognition in a real, measurable way.

Good collaboration—and, as we’ve seen, storytelling is an essential part of that dynamic—will help you “generate leads, accelerate work, get change to stick, and deepen customer relationships,” Elena said.

That’s because good storytelling doesn’t just invite emotional connections, but spur action and encourage the stickiness of employees, customers, and great ideas.

Storytelling Tip #3: Be a Story Catalyst

As Elena put it, “diversity is to invite; equity is to provide equal access; inclusion is to connect, matter, and belong.” We want to not just bring many unique perspectives to the table, but give them equal opportunities to be heard—and lift people up with connections to the humans in the seats beside them.

When we are more willing to share our own stories with honesty and care, we are in the habit of inviting others to do the same—and of really listening when they take us up on that invitation.

During her Fest session, Elena described how inviting others to trust her enough to share their authentic stories is an essential part of her job. But it’s also an important skill for all of us at work, if we want to connect with others and make everyone feel welcome.

As she put it, this means we must all see ourselves as a “story catalyst”—not just a storyteller.

“It begins with you,” she told all of us. “Making somebody comfortable enough to talk like this is a skill.” That means it takes practice.

Her tips to being a better story catalyst included:

  • “Keep track of personal stories.” Make sure you know your own, but also really listen to others’ stories and make an effort to remember and respect them in later interactions.
  • “Find opportunities to share.” Let people see the real you so they know you are a safe person to be real with themselves.
  • “Share impact.” Talk about how and why shared experiences matter to you.
  • “Encourage colleagues” to share that impact on them, too, if they’re comfortable doing so.
  • “Evoke stories from colleagues,” whether it’s by direct invitation or opening the floor for discussion.
  • “Listen, listen, listen.” Practice all those active listening skills and show your coworkers that you care.

Much like the best writers are also ravenous readers, the best storytellers also make the best audience. A good rule of thumb is to always try to listen more than you speak.

Attend Relativity Fest 2023

Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.

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