How can we use storytelling to build confidence in our teams?


In the words of storytelling consultant and researcher Michael Kaye:

Stories can shape the culture of organisations. Through stories and myths, we can form images of the organisation and judge whether it is healthy or ailing. They tell us about the people who are saving the organisation and those who are bringing it down—myths support rituals, communicate values and help leaders envisage the future¹.

The first records we have of stories date back to around 700 BC – that’s more than two millennia ago. The act of storytelling forms the fabric of what our societies are made of today. Arguably one of the oldest traditions to last through the ages, it’s probably safe to say that storytelling will continue to shape our future for years to come.


Storytelling in charities

Charities are some of the best-placed organisations to inspire future action through storytelling. Non-profits can centre the stories they tell around their core purpose. The stories are, as a result, often more authentic than those in other sectors. 

But not only do these stories speak to people because they’re genuine, they also connect people who’ve had similar experiences.

We used this approach for Parkinson’s UK Awareness Week, making use of personalised video technology to help people affected by the condition share their personal stories through engaging content.



Through this storytelling content everyone feels connected to the cause and purpose. Whether that’s your internal teams finding inspiration to confidently drive initiatives forward, or your audiences being engaged and motivated to support your cause.

Storytelling is widely covered and used in external facing activities such as this, and is often written and spoken about as a great marketing tool. But it’s often missed that this sort of storytelling can also benefit an organisation internally.


Building confidence

Just like the communities charities can create (through stories) to raise awareness, so too can a workforce community emerge. An internal community which feels connected and invested in its organisation. The key is the same – a shared understanding of experiences. But these stories will only ever be shared if a trusting environment is established by an organisation, one which builds confidence in individuals and its teams.

Building this confidence doesn’t come easily to long-established nonprofit organisations. Why? It’s a mixture of things, namely a fear of failing, a lack of coherence between the people at the top and the people on the ground, and an inability to waste budget on things which have the potential ‘to go wrong’.

Whilst there are many ways to approach this crisis of confidence, when we reflect internally, the biggest barrier to succeeding is the ability to have a shared understanding of our own truths.

If we have teams that don’t feel confident they can be honest with one another, then we are more likely to fall victim to the Ladder of Inference. A concept which exposes how people can build on things that are not right in an organisation, but go unchallenged because they’ve always been done that way. 

Encouraging storytelling within teams will build confidence, and there is in fact a name for this sort of storytelling. It’s Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI).


Participatory Narrative Inquiry

In simple terms, it’s an approach which sees a group of people gather together personal experiences to better understand a situation. In turn, this helps them make better decisions.

By recounting and interpreting lived experiences, a group can reach a diversity of perspectives which takes stories further. Rather than being about consensus building, PNI is about using what people know to further – perhaps even change – their understanding of certain situations. 

The idea is that this more well-rounded understanding can produce decisions which everyone can live with in peace. In every PNI project, someone will tell a story they haven’t told before. This is because the process is, in itself, a kind of story.

One of the best parts of a PNI approach is that it avoids the hierarchical structure many organisations often slip into. It’s this flipping of the organisation from top down to bottom up which helps the stories we tell – and hence decisions we make – benefit more people.


Why listening is important

Lee Lacocca, former president and CEO of automobile manufacturer Chrysler Corporation, once said: “Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realise that real communication goes in both directions.”

Whilst many of us may listen, it’s debatable how much of our listening is in fact active. That is, not everything we hear we retain. According to a study by the University of Missouri, most of us think at a rate more than three times the rate that people speak. This means only 25% of our brain is active when we’re listening, with the other 75% tending to wander.

This is why storytelling is a great medium to capture an audience’s attention. It invokes imagery, and invests listeners from the start, making it harder to ‘leave’ the narrative. It also creates an environment in which an entire group can focus on one person. And for that person, holding the floor helps to legitimise the experience they’re retelling. Sharing your own experiences in a story format often allows you to go deeper too, because you can control how much of yourself you want to expose.

Not only does the contextual richness of a story help an audience to actively listen, it also allows the teller to give more information. This is because they’re weaving their own response, rather than adapting it to suit a direct question.

Ultimately, understanding storytelling and effective decisions is one way your organisation can overcome some of its wider challenges and create a future-proof charity ready to tackle this year and beyond. To learn about storytelling techniques, download our free ‘Deciding Effectively’ whitepaper. We’d also recommend pairing this reading with our ‘Future Charity’ report which helped us unearth key challenges facing the charity sector.


¹ business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/storytellingorg.html

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