4 minute read

Storytelling without data is rumor. Data without storytelling is a spreadsheet.

At a recent Shoff Chat, Borshoff creatives Ryan Noel and Colin Dullaghan and special guest Ileana Monts de Oca, Eli Lilly and Company, shared their experience producing a landmark series of Minority Employee Journeys – bringing research and data to life through impactful storytelling – and the powerful effect it’s had on the company and its employees.

The journeys were part of a companywide effort to study and understand the experiences of minority employees in an effort to bring about real change in diversity and inclusion within the organization. Ileana, who is proudly Latina, had a strong personal connection to this effort, and, along with her Borshoff team, learned valuable lessons throughout this process:

Here are the key takeaways:

You don’t just need the data on your side — you also need the leaders.

Ileana credits Lilly’s executive committee with providing unequivocal backing, as well as resources, to these efforts from the very beginning. “There was very specific, deliberate and intentional support from leadership,” she recalls. “Each journey involved three to four hours of their time in reviewing, which really speaks to their commitment to the importance of this effort.” She also observed that real pushes for change at an organization can also, of course, start at a grassroots level. In this case, it was a top-down push.

If you really want to change the culture, you have to know what’s really going on.

The minority journeys represented an unprecedented listening exercise, first and foremost. Many companies want to tell what they’re doing with diversity and inclusion, but to be truly authentic, the effort has to start with listening.

And stories like these are only as strong as the data backing them up. As Ileana admits, the truths uncovered came as a shock to some employees. “Every time there’s a presentation of one of the journeys, we get some skepticism,” she explains. ‘Someone will say this is overdramatized; it can’t really be happening.’ But the leg that it stands on is the data. And if we trust in our methodology, then we have to trust the results.” 

To ensure the process protects participants and elicits honest responses, it is important to:

  • Establish an environment of safety. Before anyone’s going to open up, especially about personal topics, you have to earn their trust. This was particularly essential for the individual interviews that made up a portion of the research.
  • Remember “The Vegas Thing.” Basically, what happens in a focus group or one-on-one interview stays in that room. The team made sure everyone understood that what they shared was shared in confidence and would be held in confidentiality unless the employee authorized its use.
  • Foster open dialogue. Setting a tone in which people felt comfortable making candid, even humorous observations about interactions at work — without making light of serious outcomes — helped this team get stories and insights they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
  • Provide anonymity as needed. Employee stories were also gathered through an online chat room format, in which each participant was given a number or handle, with no connection to their actual identity, as well as anonymized surveys that allowed people to “open up.”

Everybody has to dive deep.

Creative Director Ryan Noel observed early on in the process that it’s impossible, or at least inadvisable, to stay detached from the subject matter. “It’s one thing to see the data that’s confirming the hypothesis,” he remembers, “but then once you get into the room and start to hear the stories … you understand how important it is to feel it.”

Ryan goes on to explain that he considered the information being entrusted to his team “sacred,” and that to have the proper frame of reference and understanding, the entire team needed to be open to learning and growing. “Job one was to open hearts and minds,” he says. “To set the stage for data. And that opening of hearts and minds really started with the creative team.” This work was effective because everyone involved understood and highly valued the emotional component behind making a deeper connection to drive real change.

Diversity and Inclusion, like a lot of internal communications efforts, can too often be dismissed as a check-the-box exercise, or, as Ileana shares, “just something you do because your boss thinks it’s important.” But we have the responsibility to make a difference. Storytelling, as Ileana observed, is how you take something that can feel very transactional … and make it transformational by helping people understand. 

If you’d like to learn more about using storytelling to bring your data to life, contact Katherine Coble. Check out other episodes of Shoff Chats here.