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Webinar with Rob Burnet – a masterclass on The Art of Storytelling - a masterclass on how good communications creates social change, the art and the science

A brilliant masterclass, full of insight and learnings on the power and impact of meaningful storytelling. If you missed it, catch up here.

Insight: A hidden truth, brought to the surface by an ancient art, storytelling

Rob Burnet is the founder and CEO of Shujaaz Inc, a network of social ventures based in Nairobi. Their aim is to break down the barriers that prevent young people taking control of their future. They do it through the power of storytelling

I’m not going to work my way through everything Rob said on the webinar. There was so much in it that was fascinating, insightful and practical, and as with any good story, there is something for everyone. Instead I want to pick out a few elements that really spoke to me.

Storytelling the future

Rob talked about how human mastery of stories has been fundamental to our evolution. It’s been woven into the fabric of our lives. From early cave paintings to the stories we were ‘sold’ during Brexit, fortunes have been made and wars fought over contested views! So if stories are created to help us learn from the past, explain the present and visualise a future, how do we use storytelling as leaders in our organisations to reflect, understand and compel? I think in society and in the organisations we work we are becoming desperate for vision, a compelling story of something we are creating, a promise! 

Promise something that people are interested in

Shujaaz was created post a difficult election period in Kenya, which left a huge youth population with ‘energy and passion but not enough to do!’ Can we help them garner ideas? In the case of the 15-24 year olds in Kenya, their interest was more sex, more money, more fun! The messages Shujaaz created spoke to them in their language, in fact, the young people wrote it, Shujaaz simply wove it into a story. You are bound to be interested in something if essentially it mirrors your language.

It begs the question – are we forcing a story on people, or are we simply drawing a story out of them and reflecting it back


Complex and simple

We are constantly trying to make complex things simple, particularly in organisations where we want to align people behind big ideas, or get cost out of our systems, or get people to behave differently. Yet Rob talked brilliantly about keeping complexity in mind.

Complexity keeps you humble – these are difficult problems, they need trial and error and probably some help

Complexity forces you to dig deeper – remember, insight is hidden truth, you have to roll your sleeves up to find it

People are rarely passive

The example Rob used of the World Bank trying to get young people interested in budget meetings was really insightful. They were falling back on the assumption that young people were either adopters or simply passive and needed nudging. However, digging deeper, many were out and out rejecters. ‘Ignorance is never the reason people don’t act’. This forced a reframing of the task from ‘how can we get young people to like going to budget meetings’ to ‘how can we get them to hate them a little less.’


Perhaps sometimes we have to alter the narrative, from a utopian view to a realistic answer. Sir Martin Narey realised this when he ran the UK prison service, shifting his vision from one of transformational change to ‘just stop things getting any worse’


Is business ownership the best form of contraception!

You might talk about contraception and safe sex until you are blue in the face. Perhaps your parents preached this to you and you pass on the valuable ‘sermon’ to your kids (my experience met with “yeah, whatever dad!”) Nothing broke through quite as well for Shujaaz until the story of the lady who played their on-line business game, transformed her boiled egg business as a result, and nothing would stop her taking control of this future. Not even pregnancy? – “not me, I’m bulletproof”. The story of business success and entrepreneurialism totally reframed the contraception message and gave people an even more powerful reason to believe. BUT, you have to recognise it when it happens: the insight comes when you decide to pick apart the relatively throw-away word ‘bulletproof’. For that, you need people with extraordinary listening power and a willingness to dig deep.


Trust is the major ingredient to change

There is an extremely high correlation between the level of trust and the likelihood of shifting behaviour. It comes down to intention in my view. Everything about Shujaaz is about the opportunity for the individual and not ‘the sell’. Perhaps you can’t quite trust someone when you know they are trying to sell you something.

If trust is in ingredient of change, then truth is an ingredient of trust. As our friend Nick Stace says, if you are truthful with people they will be truthful back.

Removing barriers using data.

I was fascinated by the story of how they have co-created, with Cambridge University, software to read Sheng (urban slang cultivated in Nairobi). They are looking for patterns in messages in their own inbox, how individual people communicate, the type of language they use etc. One use for this has been to match banks (previously unable to give loans to people without credit history) with individuals who, by patterns in their language, are shown to be incredibly reliable.

Many companies have intimidating amounts of data and little idea of what to do with it. That might be because they frame the challenge as ‘how can we use this data to sell more product’. Perhaps ‘removing barriers so people can take control’ simply fosters more creative use of data.

And finally…Recruit your consumer!!

Shujaaz’s social media hits spiked through the roof and when they dug into why it turns out that two seventeen-year-old interns were doing all the messaging! Personally I remember using interns to do all the crappy jobs or that little project that didn't actually need doing! Shujaaz is full of people who resemble their audience and you can hear that in the way Rob talks about it. He is constantly excited and challenged by the place – male, pale but certainly not stale!!

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