Power of Storytelling in the chemical industry

Podcast: How Storytelling Improves Operator Performance

April 12, 2024
From knowledge capture and transfer to making technical information understandable and engaging, storytelling aids in retaining tacit knowledge and contextual understanding and enhances employee engagement.


Welcome to Chemical Processing's Distilled Podcast Series, Operator Training Edition. This podcast and its transcript can be found at Please subscribe to this podcast via your favorite platform. I'm Traci Purdum, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Processing, and joining me is David Strobhar, founder and principal human factors engineer for Beville Engineering. Dave is also the founder of the Center for Operator performance.

Also joining us today is Trish Kerin, director of the IChemE Safety Centre.

Trish and I host the Process Safety With Trish & Traci Podcast, and I asked her to join us today because we're going to be talking about storytelling, which is something she not only does well, but also advocates for. Just great storytelling from both of you, which makes my job very much easier. But for storytelling, it also helps communicate findings, results, and recommendations effectively to various stakeholders, including colleagues, clients, management, and regulatory bodies.

Why Storytelling Is Important In The Chemical Industry

By framing technical information within a narrative structure, engineers can make their work more understandable and compelling. What I want to know, and Dave, I'm going to pose it to you first, is what is the role of storytelling and why is it important for our audience of chemical engineers and operators within the chemical industry?

Dave: Well, storytelling has two, both in terms of knowledge capture and knowledge transfer. It's very powerful in terms of capturing particularly tacit knowledge. You may have experts that if you ask them to just say, "Well, tell me what you know," they struggle with that because they don't know what's important. But they can tell you stories, and embedded in those stories is that expertise.

And along with it, some of the context under which the expertise comes about. And then, of course, it is excellent for information transfer for people to pick up with this because they can put themselves in the story and exercise their own mental models as to what they would have done in that particular situation. And it also uses a second part of our cognitive system.

So, we have two types of memory. We have semantic memory, which is facts and numbers and things like that, and then we also have what's called episodic memory, which, as the name would apply, deals with things you've experienced. And so now you're tapping into both of those memory systems through storytelling. So that's why it's a very powerful tool.

Traci: Trish, what are your thoughts?

Trish: Yeah, I agree. I started to use storytelling several years ago when it occurred to me that when children are growing up, we use stories to teach them life lessons. Nursery rhymes and children's stories contain life lessons of things that we need to learn and deeply understand and remember as we grow. And then I think the problem is as we grow and become adults, we look at children's stories and think, well, that's just childish. And we move away from storytelling because it's an immature, childish thing to do.

But the fact is that storytelling is, as Dave said, it's something that sticks with us, and it is a great way to share information and learn information. And that then led me a few years ago to really delve into the deep Indigenous culture in Australia. And looking at that, this was a culture that had no written language. They still don't have a written language that is effective today, the Indigenous of Australia. They have a spoken language and what they call song lines.

Songlines describe the creation being and the creation time of the land. And they use these stories to communicate critically important information to people and have not only just merely survived on the Australian continent, which is known to be incredibly harsh in a number of different ways with lots of dangerous animals and lots of extreme weather and all these sorts of things, but they also thrived in that environment, and they knew how to find water in the middle of the desert.

And they communicated that through song lines, which was effectively storytelling. Their creation stories tell the stories of, what is the right way to behave? What is the wrong way to behave? What are the right plants that are safe to eat? What animals are safe to eat? How do you hunt and catch that animal? Where do you find safe water to drink? That's what their song lines and their deep creation stories tell you about.

And so, when I started to really understand that a little bit more, it resonated with me to say this is something we need to do a lot more of in the industrial world because we have this really valid, important information we need to share. And when you tell it in a story, as Dave said, we get that episodic memory; we remember the story. And to highlight how effective that is for people, for example, if all of a sudden your favorite song comes on on the radio, you know all the words.

Did you ever sit down and actively learn them? No. But a song is a story. You have remembered the story, and you might sing along to that whole song and know all the words. That's an example of how powerful storytelling can be. You've never actively sought to learn something, but you deeply know it. And that is the true power and why we really need to be doing more of this.

Knowledge Transfer Techniques

Traci: Now, Dave, I know that you've done some studies on effectively integrating storytelling into the chemical industry, and I think there's one anecdote where there's a storytelling circle that happens, and the younger folks in the circle appreciate the storytelling because they understand why certain things happen now the way they do, where without that context, it just seemed like silly things. Can you talk a little bit about that and how to integrate storytelling effectively?

Dave: Sure. So, this was a study that the Center for Operator Performance funded with Dr. Gary Klein looking at storytelling for knowledge capture. And they had what they called anecdote circles where they would go around and share these stories. And in doing so, again, the long-timers often would tell a story because in that story were key pieces of information that they took for granted because to them, well, that's so obvious that you would do that. But the young operators, they hadn't heard that before.

And this one had to do with a cat cracker upset, and the old guys like, "Well, we put steam up the riser," and the young guy goes, "Oh, wow, that is a really good idea. How did you know to do that?" He's like, "Well, I thought we all did that." So tacit performance and knowledge were a way to gather that. As part of this particular project, they were looking at, well, how do we elicit information around storytelling and how do we then disseminate it? One of the member companies does the storytelling capture and transmits the results via newsletters.

There are others that use it for the toolbox talks at the beginning of the day. And probably the most important one of the key issues in training, or one of the key tools is the use of scenarios for effective training. Obviously, when you're capturing these stories, they provide the basis for creating these scenarios and putting them into a fixed structure that you can use to help people understand what you would do in that same situation. Currently, the COP has a guide for both how you create the stories and then integrate it into your company so that you're not losing that information.

And that's obviously with the wave of retirements; how do we capture that information? Well, this is one of the ways to do that.

Storytelling Best Practices

Traci: Trish, you and I have talked a lot about storytelling, and there are good ways to tell a story, and there are bad ways to tell a story. Can you go into that a little bit?

Trish: I think for me, it's around how effective it is, and that means you need to create a safe space and the time for people to share stories. Because you need to make sure that when someone shares a story, that can be a very vulnerable moment for them, particularly if they're talking about something that went wrong, something they were involved in.

We don't want to have a situation where people are going to face repercussions for being willing to speak up and share some of the stories of things they might've got wrong in the past so other people don't get them wrong in the future. And so I think that's an important part, creating that time and space for people to be able to share effectively. Then, we should particularly encourage curiosity because we need to make sure we've got people who are curious, want to know the answer, want to find out, and want to learn new things in our workplace.

And then when we've got the people with more experience, typically as humans, we love to talk about ourselves. It's the topic we know the most about. We want to talk about ourselves. And so, when you've got that safe space for people to be able to talk about themselves and people that are willing and happy to listen, I think you're going to get better storytelling outcomes. That's when you're going to have the chance to sit down and have a conversation over a cup of coffee and just understand the history of a site or why something is done a certain way by hearing about...

We sometimes talk about the traditional old war stories of the old-timers. We've all got war stories. We've all got the scars from some of those stories, too. And it's quite valuable, I think, to be able to share those. I mean, some of the most intense learning I did early in my career was working on shift with the operators. Because in the middle of the night, when there were slower times, you'd sit down and you'd do storytelling. It wasn't formal. It was a natural discussion that happened.

Because you might sit there and go, "So why do we do that? Well, let me tell you, five years ago, this happened, and we then ended up with coming to that point." And I think that's the important part about creating good outcomes in storytelling.

Enhancing Employee Engagement

Traci: Storytelling contributes to employee engagement and the organizational culture. What is the importance of getting that engagement?

Trish: I think it's about recognizing the value that people have contributed. So, by encouraging the use of storytelling, the message you're sending to the people in the organization is you have value in this organization, and we want to hear that. We want to understand more so that we can acknowledge and recognize that. And I think that can contribute really well to engagement and organizational culture, demonstrating to people that the work they do, what they have contributed is valuable and is respected and is needed.

And that is something that I think, deep down, we all want to feel in our workplace and what we do. So that, for me, I think is one of the great ways that it contributes. Dave?

Dave: Well, I would agree, and I think you hit upon it talking about needing an organization that has that psychological safety for people to speak up. All of this fits into the HOP, Human Organizational Performance drive, but you need to have that buy-in from the very top, and they are willing to provide that psychological safety.

If they do that, then you can have the learning culture, you can have the continuous improvement that HOP advocates, and you want to see that you're learning from things that have occurred, both good and bad, to improve the overall knowledge within your plant.

Telling Tales About Technical Information

Traci: Certain things lend themselves well to storytelling, process safety incidents or those types of things. But what about complex technical information? How can storytelling be used to communicate that type of information? Dave, you want to take a stab at that one?

Dave: Well, sure. So, it is inherent in a good story because stories talk about causal relationships. This happened and this happened, and both what were true causal relationships and what were red herrings or, well, I thought it was this because of that, but it really wasn't. It was something else. So even though you think of this complex topic that we're dealing with here in terms of the reactions within this particular vessel, the story itself will look at all these different causal factors.

Not apply the numeric values that an engineer would, but understand the relationship between them. So stories are, like I said, inherently good for doing that, even though you might think, oh, well, this is too complex to use in a story. If it's a good story, it'll contain that complexity and help the listeners unpackage it.

Trish: Yeah, I wholly agree with that. It's about the narrative and the quality of the story to create those causal relationships because that's what matters in decision-making. At the end of the day, someone's going to make a decision on the basis of what they understand, not the hard numerical data that you put in front of them, and trying to quantify risk down to some numerical value that may or may not have so much error and assumption built into it any way that the number can at times be somewhat meaningless.

So, creating that scenario, talking through it, talking through the interconnection, what the consequences can be, and what some of the unintended consequences might be depend on what action we take. I think storytelling works well for technical information, and it's one of the reasons that one of the activities that I'm working on at the moment is to try and create a useful workshop for people to try and learn storytelling. Because you can learn the tips and how to do it well, but often from an engineering perspective, we want to stick to the data that we know.

And that's fine if we're talking to someone who knows the data. But if we're talking to anybody else who is not as deeply ingrained in that data as we are, they don't understand what we're talking about, and they're not going to get the message we need to send. So I want to start a movement where we see a lot more effective storytelling in industry, and I figure a great way to do that is to help people get better at it.

Practicing Storytelling Skills

Traci: How do they get better? Can you teach storytelling? Obviously, you're both good storytellers, but can you teach that to folks? Trish, you say a late shift, sit down, have coffee, and make it an informal thing. Then Dave talks about those sharing circles, making it something that you do on a daily basis. What's the best practice there or a combination of both?

Trish: I think it's a combination of both. But I also think that presenting data to decision makers to get a decision made on something can also be done using storytelling. Depending on what the audience is and what the desired outcome is, the style of storytelling that you do will change because storytelling is not the same in everything.

Depending on what it is, if you're doing a big presentation for a large audience, you might want to use an initial hook to get people into your story, which typically requires us to... This is a weird thing to do, but we start the story in the middle of the story, not at the start of the story. And we hook them in, then we go back to the beginning and take them through why we used that. Then, we can go past the hook and get further into the details of the information and the story.

So the structure of storytelling, when you're trying to convey some information, can be really useful in making sure that you cover the right elements that you need to so that you're going to get the information conveyed, making sure that you're familiar with and aware of the language of the people that you're speaking with. So, there's no point telling a story in language that the audience doesn't understand because they're not going to hear it. They'll hear words, but they won't know what they mean.

So, you've got to make sure you're speaking at the right level, using the right terminology for people, and avoiding using acronyms in stories. Typically, they do not add value to the story by having acronyms in there. We want to make sure that people understand what things mean. So, I think there's a range of different practical tips that we can start to think about to get people engaged in a story. So, as an example, one of the stories I talk about is all of a sudden, I was standing in a puddle of jet fuel.

So people want to know why, what happened, how I got there, and what did I do? I've got their attention. Now that I've got their attention, I can talk to them about why I'm credible in talking about this, what those issues are, what I did do, how it happened, why it happened, and what I did at that immediate moment to make sure it was still safe and I created a safer outcome at the end of it. So those sorts of interesting tools can be quite helpful.

Traci: In journalistic terms, we talk about grabbing them by the collar and dragging them into the story. So, obviously, there are a lot of similarities there. And alphabet soup, you never want to give them all those acronyms without having some understanding behind that. Dave, you were about to say something.

Dave: Well, there are two things. One, I always like to quote Steve Martin from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. If you're going to tell a story, have a point. Make sure that the people who are developing your story understand the point you're trying to make here as you're going through this. And as Trish said, setting the stage is key, her standing in the pool of jet fuel. And then one of the key issues is using words that evoke visualization of the environment.

Because as can resonate with their senses, then that is going to pull them into that story more. The pool of jet fuel, she wasn't just standing in jet fuel, she was standing in a pool of jet fuel. So that provides a visualization of, okay, what is going on? And you could also deal in the other senses in terms of jet fuel smells wonderful, the scents and all of that. Those ways of depicting the story help put the person into the story, which is ultimately what you're trying to do with it.

Trish: And just picking up on that as well, one of the strongest memory senses that humans have is the sense of smell. So, at times, you might then describe the smell of something because that is a significant mental anchor for people and activates the senses to remember that detail quite effectively.

Traci: And going on that, Dave, you and I have discussed that certain operators can just hear a pump and know something's wrong. So maybe describing that and what it sounds like when it's about to fail.

Dave: Right, or you're hearing these other sounds within there. Again, this is part of setting the stage. I'm in the unit with my hearing protection on, and the heater is blasting; I can barely hear. So that may not even be relevant to what's coming, but it puts the person there because they've been there. Oh yeah, I've stood under a heater. And I can be two inches from the other person screaming at them, and they can't hear what I'm saying.

So, any of those ways of evoking the situation so the person can be in it, recognize it, and say, "Ah, yeah, okay, now I'm with you." And again, a lot of this is all getting back to trying to enable that person to play along. What would I be thinking? What would I be doing next? Because that's where a lot of the training comes from. It tests out the mental model that the individual has.

I'm hearing this pump. It sounds like it's cavitating. Could that be the cause of this problem that I'm having or the lack? The fact that the dogs didn't bark at night. I didn't hear that, and yet I'm thinking there's cavitation, but you're not hearing what should be the normal sound from a cavitating pump. That's why I didn't think it was that.

Painting that picture is very important in terms of helping people understand and putting themselves there. And then, okay, how did you determine which direction to go?

Storytelling Tools

Traci: All right, and my dogs did bark. I'm sure you did hear that. So sorry about that. Dave. You had mentioned something about the COP having a guide to storytelling. Where did they find that?

Dave: So if you're a member of the COP, a lot of your listeners, their companies are, is the website. If you're a member of the company, you can download the guide. It tells you how to take information to senior management to get these programs going and down to forms to help you capture the stories. It breaks it up into: what is your point? What's the background? What's the sequence of events?

So it helps take them through that. So, for any of your listeners who are part of a member company, it's available to you. I'd love to have you if your company isn't a member. So, it's an open organization available to anyone to join, and the storytelling guide is just one part of the tools that we're currently creating.

Traci: Trish, do you guys have anything over at the IChemE?

Trish: No, not at the moment. As I said, I'm working on developing a particular workshop activity at the moment, which I'll be taking into the market sometime later this year where we can do some workshop and some coaching and some training to really hone people's skills and give them the confidence as well, because sometimes it can take confidence to be able to get up and tell a story too.

Traci: Indeed. Is there anything that you want to add on this topic that we didn't cover? Trish, I'll let you go first on that one.

Trish: I think for me, it's not maybe adding anything that we didn't cover. It's just reinforcing a little bit that I think this is an incredibly powerful tool and technique we need to use. I think it will help us create better communication and better learning because people can understand the information so they can reflect on it and create that learning in their mind to take that forward. So, as you know, I'm a big fan of storytelling, and I'm always interested in trying to make that space better for everybody.

Traci: Dave, final thoughts?

Dave: Yeah, I would just add to it. I think Trish hit it earlier, and she said people think storytelling is something for children, but it's not. It's something that we do all the time, and it is a great learning tool that can help you become part of and propel the learning environment that you want your organization to have.


About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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