If storytelling isn’t in your culture change toolkit already, then you’re seriously missing out. Inspiring stories about safety can dramatically improve how your people behave, learn and work together as teams.
They just need telling in the right way.
Not everyone is a natural storyteller like Tribe’s Mark Bolkonsky, though. Yet with a little practice, he believes everyone can master the transformative power of storytelling.
With 20 years of industrial knowledge, fateful events and an eye for theatrical delivery, Mark has advice to help you captivate an audience, and harness stories as a catalyst for engaging your people in culture change.
What do you mean by storytelling in a professional context?
“Think about it this way. If I read you HSE’s guidelines on working at height, you’ll soon switch off. It’s boring. But if I tell you about the time I didn’t set up my ladder properly, and this really happened – and it collapsed beneath me and left me dangling high above the floor, clinging for my life to a rafter in the ceiling. Suddenly, the whole thing comes to life – it’s far more sticky as a message for safer behaviour.
“People don’t respond well to lists and instructions. We don’t like being told what to do. But we respond really well to constructed, moving narratives that help us make sense of the world.
“What influenced me was discovering TED talks by accident on the internet. I watched a few and as an actor I was struck by how brilliantly they tell stories to explain powerful ideas. That’s when I realised there’s a much more educational, inspirational side to stories as opposed to just the entertainment side.”
How do stories work?
“It’s because of the way they engage the brain. You might have seen footage where scientists put a special cap on someone to map their brain activity – and flashes appear on a screen when different parts of the brain are firing. Well, if you tell somebody something that’s purely information – like the HSE guidelines, the brain only fires in the part that deals with language recognition and communication. It’s called Wernicke’s Area near the back of the head. You’re hearing the sound, but nothing else. What you might call ‘in one ear, out the other’.
“But if you tell an inspirational story, what happens is very different. If I speak about what I was experiencing in terms of senses – how dark it was in a factory, the heat, the smell of oil, the sticky film of dirt everywhere, noisy hydraulic lathes – what I’m doing is engaging your sensory cortex. What they’ve shown through neural mapping is if I talk about senses; smells, texture, colour – your sensory cortex fires when you’re listening. You’re engaging more parts of the brain.
“The same happens with movement: sensations of falling and swinging from a rafter. Include these in your story and people imagine them in their motion cortex. Emotions too – if I talk about my terror, my heart racing and my life flashing before my eyes – listeners empathise with those feelings too. By now the whole brain is lighting up like a Christmas tree. You’re engaging even more parts of the brain so the message becomes even stickier.
“Why does it happen like this? Well, that’s how we’re wired. Storytelling is the earliest form of communication – before we could record ideas we spoke about them in a memorable way. That’s how messages lasted through the generations, like the Norse Myths, The Odyssey – these were passed on orally for hundreds and thousands of years.
“People think in stories. You have an internal story that’s going on, all the time. One event leads to another; ‘if I put the guard down, I can use this machinery safely without being harmed and enjoy a round of golf at the weekend’. It’s how our brains deal with reality. We think with an internal narrative that’s being written all the time, and that can be influenced by stories that move people.”
How can storytelling help with culture change?
“We recently helped a client’s employee tell a story, about the time he’d seen heavy machinery damage an excavation pit, dropping heavy support beams onto his colleagues below. When he told it, you could see the anticipation on the listeners’ faces, it was silent in the room, tense like a Hollywood cliffhanger as he described walking to the edge of that pit, not knowing what he would see below.
“The point is this was just an ordinary guy who works on site, not used to public speaking – but with the right coaching, authority and authenticity made it work. Everyone learned something that day about doing thorough risk assessments, without having to go through the same near-miss experience.
“Something really interesting happens when you tell someone a story. As you remember the events, all those regions of the brain I described earlier start firing in your brain. But they’re also reflected in the brain of the person listening to your story! It’s called neural coupling.
“It’s as if the same regions of the two brains synchronise and link-up – what I’m experiencing becomes what you experience. You go through the same emotional, sensory experience as I do telling it. That makes the moral behind a story even more sticky and memorable.”
What’s the secret to good storytelling?
“A lot of it is down to preparation and practice; drawing out the details and accentuating them, helping someone choose the best stories that echo a culture change vision. It’s actually very enjoyable, because sitting down with someone and getting to know them through their stories is how humans do things anyway – over a drink after work or whatever. You start off in that sort of mode – as if you’re down the pub or with a friend over a coffee. There’s drama, humour, impersonations, scandal – all that’s already in there, we just coax it out into an engaging narrative.
“Essentially, what Tribe does is coach people to tell the best possible version of a truthful story, in such a way that engages more parts of the brain. Obviously, talking to four people in a bar is very different to addressing a conference room from a stage, or doing a toolbox talk. So we adapt the story to suit the setting and help with general public speaking.”
How can leaders encourage more storytelling?
“As a leader, you should be setting an example. Start telling your own story to the people you want to tell theirs. By doing that you’re engaging them. Choose stories that they can relate to, that link back to what they’re trying to achieve, like a safe environment or better wellbeing. Then you’ll be using the power of storytelling to influence them.
“Slowly but surely, sticky messages spread, because people see what’s possible and feel inspired and motivated to tell their own stories. The powerful thing is when you tell a story around a dinner table or wherever, it gives other people permission to tell theirs. Stories are contagious. There’s the coaching of course, to improve the performance skills, but that’s the basic idea.
“Everybody has a story, it just needs coaxing out. And yes, it does come easier to some than others, but as people – living through stories is just what we do.”
Tribe find new, exciting ways to tell stories about individuals playing a positive part in reaching your goals. Immersive techniques, like VR and live drama, evoke powerful feelings of pride and belonging, so your people are are more likely to behave like their peers, and trigger a movement of sustainable improvement.
We begin with topics like health, safety, quality and well-being because people usually only ever hear stories of bad news – injuries and accidents. Yet 99% of the time people work safely and do the right thing. So we devote equal attention to all the great things they do unnoticed, and turn those into equally compelling stories – those lightbulb moments when people find new ways to keep themselves and their colleagues safe and healthy at work.