Why Storytelling Is Important to Make Progress on Diversity & Inclusion

When cities hadn’t yet been established, people gathered around fires to tell tales. As the fires crackled and the flames threw shapes on cave walls, stories were passed down from one generation to the next.

While our world has changed drastically since then, our need for stories hasn’t. We still use narrative as an important teaching tool in classrooms and professional settings. At your organization, too, storytelling can be a powerful part of your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts.

So let’s take a closer look at what stories can do and how you can bring diversity and inclusion storytelling into your organization to make a difference.

Diversity Storytelling Shifts the Narrarative to Humanity

DEI isn’t a checklist. It’s not even about numbers, even though metrics are important to measure. At heart, your efforts in DEI are about people — about making them feel welcome, about allowing all your people to feel they can bring their full selves to work without hiding parts of who they are to “fit in.”

Storytelling is about connecting us to humanity. When you turn your focus from data to stories, you start focusing on whole people, with all their nuances and uniqueness. You find common ground in the emotions and experiences that connect us.

Storytelling is a powerful tool, so let’s take a look at how narrative can bring positive change to your organization.

Storytelling Helps Us to Step Into Others’ Lives

Have you ever read or listened to a story told from the perspective of someone dramatically different from you? Chances are, you were able to empathize with their ideas, perspectives, and life. Maybe you were even cheering them on.

It appears there’s a scientific reason for this connection we feel to stories. Professor Uri Hasson of Princeton University researched how storytelling affects brain activity. His team found that the brain wave patterns of a storyteller and story listener start to synchronize. According to Hasson, our brains try to predict and understand the story deeply. We physically try to connect through narrative, which means we’re primed to understand different perspectives and ideas.

And that’s not all. Here’s some additional research about stories and inclusion:

  • A study from the Academy of Management found that newcomers to an organization prefer to hear stories from their peers, though most organizations focus on narratives from leadership & experiences of leadership.
  • According to Harvard Business Review, when we hear representative stories, we’re better able to have nuanced, complex conversations that can lead to change.
  • A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology concluded that when organizations encourage employees to step into others’ perspectives (such as through storytelling) it can create a “lasting positive effect on diversity-related outcomes by increasing individuals’ internal motivation to respond without prejudice.”

Stepping into other perspectives is only one benefit, though. Narrative also changes the ways we act and even how our brains are impacted . . .

Storytelling Changes Our Brain & Behaviors

Professor Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has studied the effects of storytelling on the brain. He has found that when listeners hear a compelling story that engages them emotionally, their brains release oxytocin, a molecule that causes them to feel empathy and create stronger bonds. His research has found that compelling stories, like those based on the hero’s journey, can directly impact behavior and cause listeners to engage in positive changes and altruistic actions.

If you’ve been looking for ways to create positive changes in your organization, Zak’s research is exciting. It suggests interesting narratives can be the ingredient you’ve been missing to create real change.

Storytelling Lets Us Address Systemic Inequity

Storytelling also addresses systemic inequity because it raises the question: What stories are being shared and which ones are not? Chances are some stories are being hidden. For example, you may have heard the story of Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of the telephone. It’s less likely you’ve heard of Elisha Gray, a woman who filed for a patent for the telephone on the same day as Bell and who some have credited with being the rightful inventor.

Examples like this occur with startling frequency, and these storytelling inequities need to be addressed for better DEI outcomes. When we bring hidden stories to light, we’re able to share and celebrate contributions made by people of all backgrounds. We’re able to bring women, the LGBTQ+ community, Black and Indigenous people, Asian individuals, and others into history and the storytelling circle. After their stories have been hidden, we can be allies in giving them a voice.

Whose Stories Are We Hearing?

In the professional world, it is, historically, white men’s stories that have been told. The contributions of women and BIPOC investors and leaders have not always been celebrated. In many cases, harmful stereotypes have been sustained through narratives, movies, and books.

Today, we have a chance to reclaim stories and ensure people get the credit they were often denied in their lifetimes. We have a chance to question stories that hurt our ability to connect with others. In other words, we have an exciting opportunity to share authentic histories and honor leadership across identities.

How Does Storytelling Help Address Systemic Inequality

Storytelling helps us address systemic inequity first by giving credit where credit is due. When we hear the full story, we bring in more voices and can address some historic wrongs. For example, in 1967 Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars while working at Cambridge University assisting the astronomer Anthony Hewish. This discovery changed the field of astronomy. It was Hewish, though, who received the Nobel Prize and the credit for the discovery. It hasn’t been until recently that The New York Times and other sources have started giving Burnell credit for her discovery. Through her story, Burnell is no longer without a voice as she was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Stories also have an equalizing force that can address inequality. Not everyone has access to the same economic opportunities or power yet. However, everyone has a chance to share their story. In doing so, they are taking the first steps to improvement.

When we share stories about the pain caused by microaggressions, for example, we inspire action. Once we hear enough stories about how much people are hurting because of inequality, we may be galvanized to make a change — a change that affects access to power and economic opportunities for others. When we hear through a story how a colleague has been hurting because of certain speech, for example, we may say “no more” and create training or a policy to make sure certain words or phrases are never again used in our organization. Building on this change, we may decide to create town halls about DEI to expose other pain points so we can address them.

The Social Power of Storytelling

Storytelling can also address systemic inequity because it can snowball. Stories don’t live in isolation. They encourage others to speak up. Consider, for example, the #MeToo movement. When a few women shared their experiences of abuse, many more found the courage to step forward and share their own experiences. When they did, some perpetrators were at last brought to justice.

When we start using storytelling, many powerful changes are possible. One of them is that more stories will start to flow. We may hear stories from many people. Someone sharing their experience as a Black employee and facing inequity can also give courage to a disabled worker to come forward. Storytelling shines a broad light and encourages long-standing hurts to be exposed, so they can finally be addressed.

Of course, what we do next is up to us.

So How Can You Bring Diversity & Inclusion Storytelling Into Your Organization?

If you’re curious about ways to change DEI at your organization, here are some story-based efforts you can try:

  • Build a shared history. Creating a common story about your organization & team can help your team feel part of the same narrative. It can build a sense of inclusion. Sharing our life stories with our coworkers also lets us build commonality & empathy through inclusive storytelling.
  • Learn the process of storytelling together. Learning the craft & structure of stories can make your team more aware of the lived realities we relate to one another. It gives you more tools to start your diversity & inclusion storytelling practice. It also gives you the tools you need to question potentially harmful stories that have traditionally been told so you can build new narratives.
  • Read stories of other cultures. Consider creating a book club at your organization or share personal stories from around the world, from people of different backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, races, & ethnicities. Try to find as many perspectives through stories as you can.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer storytelling. Encourage employees to tell & share their own stories, too. When creating company narratives & histories, especially, make sure everyone has a fair chance to voice their part of the tale.
  • Have discussions about what stories don’t get told. Being aware of the stories that haven’t been told can be a way to address injustice. What contributions to your company or industry haven’t been expressed? How could you share these stories now? In the community where your business is located, what stories haven’t been told? Looking at injustice through the lens of storytelling can help people see what inequality looks like.

How Diversio Can Help

Diversio is a metrics-driven but people-first AI-powered DEI solution. We marry metrics and a holistic, humanistic approach to DEI. When you work within the Diversio Platform, for example, you can see what diversity and inclusion look like across your organization. You are then invited to move into solutions, through our Recommendation Engine™. In real-world, human-first language, you’ll learn what steps you can take, based on your company’s unique pain points, to improve inclusion and equity at your organization. Gain motivation and momentum as you explore and commit to ideas.

Let’s start building new stories together. Schedule a demo to experience Diversio for yourself.

Diversio DEI Expert
Diversio DEI Expert
Diversio's DEI expert shares everything about diversity that you need to know.
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