How to use storytelling to build a DEI workplace?

I was fortunate to have lived in South Africa for a couple of years as part of work. During those years, I met people of different colours and races. The blacks, the whites, the coloured, the Indian Indians, the South African Indians etc… A nation that’s as diverse as it could get. There is a reason South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation. Once the apartheid regime came to an end in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela and the new rulers of South Africa had an important charter – to make South Africa an equal place for all. It was one of the biggest experiments on building a diverse, equitable and inclusive nation.

Trevor Noah writes in his autobiographical, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African childhood, “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”

To build a DEI safe workplace, the first step is to appreciate and recognize the person or the group of people as a human being(s). This is where the power of storytelling helps to build a DEI safe workplace.

So how to go about it? The following are the 3 ways an organization can start and build its DEI initiatives.

Employee story groups – a safe place to share
Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team Authentic and transparent stories from leaders

Employee story groups – a safe place to share

To create a diverse and inclusive workplace, there must be a safe place for people to share and be heard without judgement. This is a place to hear out different perspectives in an engaged and empathetic manner. Personal stories of others can be an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, recognize the conscious biases and be aware of the unconscious biases. This creates a cascading effect that results in behaviour change.

An HBR article shares the following methods to use the power of storytelling to build an inclusive workplace.

  • Do a round-robin question in a meeting
  • Hold listening sessions
  • Host discussion-heavy book clubs
  • Schedule storytelling town halls
  • Include stories in blogs, videos, celebrations, promotions, and onboarding
  • Share survey results that show negative perceptions and harmful treatment
  • Have social forums and meetups
  • Develop dynamic social media campaigns that share stories

Most of the time, people underestimate what they have gone through or think that their experience is not worthy enough to share. They need to be reassured that the expectation is to share a real story but not something that is dramatic or perfect.

Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team

Employees get fired up on stories that come from their peers rather than leaders. But most of the time, organizations share leadership talks on DEI instead of employee stories.

Programs like this should also take into consideration of the various aspects like current geographical presence, ethnic and racial aspects, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, women in general and any specific groups like single mothers, mental health & wellness etc.

Another important aspect is to set a goal and track progress on critical metrics. It could be on demographics, diversity hiring at every level of the organization, retention and promotion rates of the focus groups, usage of the DEI resources etc. Periodic reporting at employee townhalls will show the commitment of the leadership and be helpful in raising the bar on accountability.

Leadership storytelling to build a DEI workplace

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook came out in open to disclose his sexual identity in 2014. This was the first time a leading CEO was open about being gay. His decision to come out in public was after receiving several letters from children struggling with their sexual orientation. He went on to say, “I’m not saying that I understand the trials and tribulations of every minority group because I don’t. But I do understand for one of the groups. And to the degree that it helps give you a lens on how other people may feel, I think that’s a gift in and of itself.”

Leadership commitment to DEI programs should go beyond approving such initiatives or giving a budget for that. They have a critical role in making sure DEI programs are given the same importance as any other business initiative. They can do that by playing an active role in the events organized by employee groups.

Being part of the employee groups, can help leaders with awareness, create meaningful connections with different interest groups, develop empathy and mutual respect.

Over time, most leaders take on professional identity and somewhere along the way drop their personal identities. Employees look for authenticity, transparency, and the layered character of their leaders to make them relatable. Personal stories of the leaders expose their personal self.

Some of the ways to dig into personal DEI stories could be,

  1. Think about the time when you had to fit in or feel pressured to conform
  2. An instance where you discovered your bias and how you overcame it?
  3. Were there situations that your background/privilege got you a different treatment than someone else?
  4. Occasions where you saw a bias play out
  5. Did someone in power help you at the workplace?

In summary,

When we share stories that show why we believe certain things and why we behave the way we do, we open up and show our value systems. We may not agree on all matters but acknowledging the other human being with compassion and empathy is all we need to drive change.

An organization that is serious in their DEI approach would start to see the following changes in their workforce,

  1. There will be a sense of warmth and empathy in the way we relate to people and their journey
  2. People start to be open up to diverse thoughts and become intent listeners
  3. Be thankful for being open in sharing their personal stories – this shows that one is heard
  4. Finding ways to improve the safe space for different employee groups

I learnt some valuable lessons on building an equitable and inclusive workplace from my experience in South Africa. I went around 2018, a good 15 yrs since the abolition of the apartheid era. While a lot could have been better, there are changes for good to the section of people who were in disadvantaged position during the apartheid era. If a nation with all the complexities in political, economical and cultural aspects can bring about this change, organisations that are serious can transform with the power of storytelling to build a DEI safe workplace.

Storytelling Lessons from the US President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Speech

Storytelling from Joe Biden Speech
US President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech in Washington, D.C - Image by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Four years ago, the Politico magazine termed President Trump’s inauguration speech as unapologetically anti-globalist and inward-looking while President Biden has this to say in his inaugural speech which was delivered earlier this week.

But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you do, or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.

We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

And further went ahead and said this, We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”

Biden’s speech was one of empathy with conciliatory tone aimed at bringing unity (not surprising that the word unity was mentioned 9 times in his speech), after a period of divisive politics that ended with protestors storming into the hallways of Capitol.

Having said that, the objective of this post is to see how President Biden used storytelling to inspire and what we can learn from it. His speech employed proven rhetorical techniques along with aspects of storytelling, not to mention the clever use of words. For anyone in leadership, his speech has got a heavy dose of takeaways on high stakes communication.

These are the 3 techniques that I found interesting,

Storytelling Lesson 1: The power of contrast – highlighting differences

Storytelling Lesson 2: Shared dreams and common grounds

Storytelling Lesson 3: Rhetoric – the science of persuasion

Storytelling Lesson 1: The power of contrast – highlighting differences

Nancy Duarte the famed TED speaker and speech analysis expert has looked at several great speeches and analysed why those speeches stood out.

Her analysis finds a lot of commonalities between Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech and Steve Jobs, the Apple iPhone launch speech in 2007. She reveals both these leaders leveraged the power of contrast to depict a picture of how the world is now and what the future could look like if the audience bought into their idea.

I found the use of contrast in multiple places throughout Biden’s speech. Kudos to his speech writer of Indian origin Vinay Reddy, for having embraced this technique very well.

These are my pick,

We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.”

“I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.”

“We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

And finishes off even more powerfully (contrast words are highlighted and they are my own),

“I will give my all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities.

Not of personal interest, but of the public good.

And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.

Of unity, not division.

Of light, not darkness.

An American story of decency and dignity.

Of love and of healing.

Of greatness and of goodness.”

Storytelling Lesson 2: Shared dreams and common ground

One of the important aspects for a leader is to get people to rally behind their (common) cause and great leaders even go to the extent of inspiring followers from the opposite camp.

The challenge before Joe Biden was that the administration that preceded him built their entire narrative on divisive politics while his campaign theme was about unity.

So how did he go about driving home this point?

He eloquently did that with a mix of emotional appeal, pitching for a positive future for all, reminding people about who they are and what was remarkable about them.

How did he execute this in his speech?

Reminding them who they are,

“We look ahead in our uniquely American way — restless, bold, optimistic — and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”

Again, reminding them who they are and telling them what the need of the hour is,

“But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.

On “We the People” who seek a more perfect Union.

This is a great nation and we are a good people.

Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we have come so far. But we still have far to go.

We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility.”

Connecting on emotions, committing himself and inviting them to commit for the shared dream and common good,

“In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

When he put pen to paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”

My whole soul is in it.

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:

Bringing America together.

Uniting our people.

And uniting our nation.

I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

Beyond the above points, he was also versatile in his approach to reach a common ground by evoking patriotism (he used, our nation (7 times), America and American (39 times), constitution (3 times), people (9 times)), quoting past leaders (Presidents -George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, activist Martin Luther King Jr.) and highlighting what a common citizen wants.

What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?

I think I know.







And, yes, the truth.”

Storytelling Lesson 3: Rhetoric – the science of persuasion

As the incoming President, once he established the common ground the next step is to inspire people to follow his vision. Great speakers employ rhetoric to persuade. Of the different methods, Biden employed couple of techniques that I could make sense.

The first technique is repetition of certain words at the beginning of a set of sentences (when same words are used in the beginning of the sentence its called anaphora and if its in the end, its called epiphora) and alliteration (letters or sound that occur at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words).

When used effectively, rhetoric can galvanise the audience. Did Biden arouse the audience with his speech? Oh! boy he did a great job at it.

Sample this anaphora,

“My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we will need each other.

We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.

We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus.

We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.

I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.

We will get through this, together.

The world is watching today.

So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it.

We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.

Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.

We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.

We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

And towards the end once more coupled with the power of contrast,

“And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.

Of unity, not division.

Of light, not darkness.

An American story of decency and dignity.

Of love and of healing.

Of greatness and of goodness.”

So what was it all about alliteration, a clever play of words that start with or sound like same letter?

He started off splendidly,

“This is democracy’s day.

A day of history and hope.

Of renewal and resolve.”

A healthy dose throughout his speech,

“Lies told for power and for profit.”

And this

“We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

And then,

“The world is watching today.”

Some more,

We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

Not always a political leader’s speech is looked forward to and when you are the President of the United States, it comes with a huge responsibility. I feel Team Joe Biden did a great job in crafting a speech that was well delivered by Joe Biden.

After listening to Biden’s speech and the transcript for more than a few times, I had to say this “Great speeches happen to those who can deliver it” inspired from Ira Glass’s, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

You can be a people manager or a sales leader or an entrepreneur, there is something that you can take away from Biden’s speech to deliver high impact communication.

What is your takeaway?

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